Going against the grain

TV commercial director Zahir Omar can’t wait to see what Malaysians will think of his first feature effort, the gritty crime thriller Fly By Night

26 Mar 2019 / 10:21 H.

DIRECTOR Zahir Omar is feeling on top of the world. His crime thriller, Fly By Night, garnered nothing but rave reviews from critics and audiences at seven international film festivals, such as those in Macao, Busan in Korea, as well as New York and Santa Barbara in the US.

There are even plans to enter the film in more international film festivals in the near future.

Meanwhile, Malaysians will get to see for themselves what the hype is all about, when the film is released in cinemas here on April 11.

“I am eager for Malaysians to catch my film,” says Zahir in a recent interview.

“I shot the film with the Malaysian public in mind.

“It is just a coincidence that the film travelled to several international film festivals first.”

Zahir is already well known as a TV commercial director. Fly By Night marks his directorial feature film debut.

The film centres on two brothers, Tai Lo (played by Singapore veteran actor Sunny Pang) and Sai Lo (model, actor and director Fabian Loo), and their best friend, Gwai Lo (pop star and award-winning actor Jack Tan).

The three are taxi drivers, but that is just a front for them to extort money from wealthy passengers.

A relentless policeman, Inspector Kamal (award-winning actor-director-producer Bront Palarae), is now hot on their trail.

Things become worse for the gang, when a disagreement between the brothers leads to Sai Lo striking out on his own, with dire consequences.

The film was shot over 21 days in January last year around Kuala Lumpur.

From the trailer, this gritty film seems to be taking the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride.

And what’s interesting is that 70% of the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin.

Zahir says initially Fly By Night was supposed to be an English-language film based on a script he and his friend, Ivan Yeo, co-wrote in 2013, which was later fine-tuned by two other film personalities, Frederick Bailey and Dain Said (Bunohan, Interchange).

But on reflection, Zahir realised it would be odd for his ethnic Malaysian-Chinese taxi driver characters to speak in English, so he got the script translated into Mandarin.

As Zahir does not know a word of the language, he organised several acting workshops for his cast and himself, to work out the differences in the naunces of the language.

Zahir is full of praise for his actors for getting under the skin of their characters, and he believes this is one of the film’s biggest strengths.

His only regret is that his friend Ivan, who passed away in 2015, didn’t live long enough to see the film.

It took Zahir more than four years to get the necessary funding of RM1.6 million to turn their script into a film.

Zahir admits to being more comfortable on a film set than in real life. Both his parents worked in advertising.

Dad Omar Abdullah was a well-known director of TV commercials, while mum Maureen Sim (alias Marina Abdullah) was a make-up artist before becoming a producer for TV commercials.

The oldest of three children, his parents often took him with them whenever they went for their shoots.

His parents are also great film buffs, and Zahir grew up watching a lot of films, and understanding the language of films. He started making short films, and even won some awards along the way.

“My father advised me against going into advertising,” he recalls, adding that his dad gave him a host of reasons why he shouldn’t follow in his footsteps.

But he stubbornly went ahead and his gamble paid off handsomely. Still, it took him “a good 10 years” to get out from under his father’s shadow.

“My father cast a really huge shadow. Not only was he a good director, but he was also a nice man ... [with] a gentle approach to storytelling,” says Zahir.

As a result, Zahir purposely went against the grain, displaying a wild, bad boy image in the advertising industry, and coming out with projects that were more “in your face”.

It took him some time to find his own voice, and the confidence to balance his in-your-face stuff with his father’s gentle way of presenting a story.

His dad, who has since gone into farming, is currently writing a script for a crime thriller film. And Zahir will probably be directing it, making it their first father-and-son collaboration.

In the meantime, Zahir is busy finishing a new script for his next film, described as a ‘satay western’, about a man seeking revenge after being wronged.

It will star Bront, with shooting likely to begin early next year.

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