I haven’t seen too much of what filmmaker James Lee has done to have a consumate opinion about his work. However, of what I have seen, I can earnestly speak on with praise.
Long before he came on my radar with a webseries proof titled Second Life, he did more than his fair share of cinema over the years along with his 2012 hit action comedy, The Collector. Sunny Pang stars in the film – his second pairing with Lee after 2009’s Call Me If You Need Me, and both have seen their respective career trajectories take different paths since then with Lee eventually launching his own independent film banner in his native Malaysia, Doghouse 73 Pictures; Lee tends to numerous shorts and proofs under the banner, the first of which I took note being Second Life in 2014.
Over in Singapore, Pang’s kept himself amply busy as a married father of four and working TV actor, in addition to having made phenomenal strides on the international film front with festival stamps per ‘Mo Bros. actioner, Headshot, and even Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us on Netflix.
Lee’s success on The Collector is what inspired him to advance with Second Life as he did while maintaining his versatility as a director in other genres. That creative and developmental bureaucracy in Malaysia’s film field continues to be an issue has indeed been a hurdle, while thankfully fans who’ve been especially eyeing Pang in the last few years can take comfort in Lee’s resilient progress and movement in the wake of their latest micro-budgeted indie, Kill-Fist.
Lee writes and directs, as well as executive produces with Pang for a story that palpitates moreso in its psychological fervor than anything. The action is the first thing Lee throws at you – a 30-second tease of what’s to come prefacing a tale centered on multiple characters.
Pang plays Zhang, a struggling father going through an ugly divorce with his rancorous soon-to-be ex-wife with whom he shares a daughter named Didi. Actor Alan Yun plays John, a stoic pastor struggling to treat his dying wife, while actress Koe Yeet joins in as Jean, a hard-working school student taking care of her ailing mother.
All three of these characters are connected somehow, with the film culminating its main centerpiece: Kill-Fist, an illegal underground fighting tournament where cash is earned digitally through thethered wristwatches sorted for its competitors as they collect increasing money prizes for every victory. Hosting it all is “Teacher Kwok”, a mysterious figure the contestants connect with via social media.
On its face, Zhang’s character is as much of an underdog as you might expect from its premise. His story is written to draw similar sympathy along with that from John given both have their reasons to compete. Therein lies the brilliance of the script as the plot continues to thicken as we also continue to learn more about Jean’s own turmoil, including with her lascivious professor, Mr. Lim, played by Mike Chuah.
The cerebral nature of Lee’s storytelling here underlines the narrative even more than before, speaking inherently past the veneer of what we see on screen. There’s a dark horse among these characters and by the end of the film as open to interpretation as things are, you can’t help but feel a little haunted.
The action is definitely where it’s at for this movie, with a portion of characters who are much more than mere fight scene filler for our stars. Lau Chee Hong’s serves as co-star in addition to designating the film’s furious fight scene delivery.
Pang delivers in all areas where it counts in this movie as one of the best actors I’ve seen. His portrayal of Zhang is crucial to the film’s plot as we witness his descent from his unnerving dead-end job as a telephone marketer for an insurance company to a somewhat replenished “new man” of sorts as Kill-Fist consumes him. If David Fincher were directing this, he would be his own Tyler Durden in a sense, and there’s an air of that menacing flair in the third act which speaks highly to his acting in accordance with his martial arts prowess.
The same goes for the role of John, as portrayed by Yun who doesn’t share the same screenfighting caliber as Pang, while also not needing to. The choreography, writing and cinematography therein all play roles into making the character work in the action that permeates and elevates the seething drama along with other characters, including actress Pearly Chua in the role of Zhang’s aunt, Mrs. Choy.
The action-packed finale stops short of being the kind of sprawling gangbuster seen in other films, which is entirely up to you in its workability depending on your tastes. By the end, what you’re left with more than anything is a consequential tale that deals more as an allegory on a number of things, like injustice, inequality, and the cyclical nature of violence.
While Kill-Fist makes the festival rounds going forward, one can only hope this film will grant Lee the posterity he deserves. Malaysia’s film industry based from what I’ve heard, is recalcitrant in its backing of smaller feature productions like Kill-Fist, which was made with a low budget and shot in thirteen days. And that’s a problem, especially as the industry at large continues to deal with a global market that is adapting to a newer identity with greater challenges for filmmakers, even discounting the fight to combat piracy.
For what it’s worth, the good news is that not only is Lee able to conquer these hurdles where and when he can to see his creative stride through, but with Kill-Fist, he has Pang headlining his cast. With the cult success seen with Headshot and The Night Comes For Us, Pang has become more prolific, and the support of his work with niche fans at large is a plus.
Hopefully that fondness will extend to Kill-Fist in the months ahead, even as we await to see what comes of Gavin Lim’s own Pang-led thriller, Diamond Dogs. Zahir Omar’s directorial debut, Fly By Night, also headlined by Pang, is another factor as it continues to win approval from critics like myself. Pang is a big deal, and one that Lee has provenly mangaes with gusto on Kill-Fist, a feasibly balanced psychological thriller that holds its own with brute force.