J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 08, 2019

AFF ’19: Fly by Night


Tailo can’t pick and chose his family anymore than the rest of us can. Unfortunately, that also means he is stuck with the same people when it comes to his extortion ring. You are much better off calling for an Uber at the K-L airport, then ordering a cab from Tailo’s sister-in-law, Michelle. When her husband and his thuggish buddy go off the reservation, they bring down heat from both sides of the law in Zahir Omar’s Fly by Night, which screens during the 2019 Atlanta Film Festival.

Tailo is cautious in all respects, including expansion. He only trusts a longtime friend like Ah Soon, a freshly released ex-con. Both older men know Sailo and his running mate Gwailo are bad news, but they are stuck with them. Alas, Sailo and Gwailo are complete idiots, who think a jilted mistress like Reanne would be a good mark. Instead, she manipulates them into targeting her wealthy ex-lover.

Reanna is not a particularly stable partner to do business with, but Sailo and Gwailo really make a hash of things when they pick a fight with a regular customer in a mobbed-up casino. Suddenly, they owe a lot of money to a real, leg-breaking gang. They also have the only slightly corrupt Inspector Kamal sniffing around. Frankly, the two knuckleheads make so many mistakes, Tailo would like to throttle them, but what can he do when they’re family?

Fly has a lot of people connected to the Malaysian film world excited for its prospects—for easily discernible reasons. This isn’t just the first hip post-Tarantino kind of noir produced by the country’s film industry. It is a good enough film to get picked up by any mid-sized specialty distributor.

Omar’s execution is tight and taut and the screenplay, credited to him, Ivan Yeo and Frederick Bailey offers several new twists to the old family-gangster story. However, it is Sunny Pang who really elevates the film as the grimly fatalistic, drily understated Tailo.  He personifies the film’s tone and attitude, but the entire ensemble is quite strong. Fabian Loo and Jack Tan are totally destabilizing wild cards as Sailo and Gwailo, while Bront Palarae just oozes charismatic malevolence as the crooked Kamal. Joyce Harn plays Reanne as a dangerous combination of hot mess and femme fatale, while Ruby Yap is deeply compelling as the scared and vulnerable Michelle.

Despite taking a very different narrative direction, Fly by Night compares quite directly and favorably with David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, because of the way both films depict families corrupted by their own criminal endeavors. Yet, like the best noirs, FBN also shares a kinship with classical tragedy. Very highly recommended, Fly by Night screens tomorrow night (4/9) at the Atlanta Film Festival and Sunday (4/14) in DC at the Freer-Sackler, as part of the Crazy Broke Asians film series.

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