The uneasy feeling of being a stranger in your own country brings two damaged souls together in “Hail, Driver!,” a bittersweet drama about life on the social and economic margins in Kuala Lumpur. This low-key tale about an unlicensed taxi driver and a disillusioned sex worker is light on plot but rewarding as a commentary on class distinctions and cultural divides in contemporary Malaysia. Strikingly filmed in black-and-white and well performed by lead actors Amerul Affendi and Mei Fen Lim, “Hail, Driver” opened on 41 local screens on Dec. 16 and is Malaysia’s entrant in Oscar’s international feature category.
Writer-director Muzzamer Rahman began filming “Hail, Driver” in 2017. A three-year delay caused by budget problems resulted in Rahman’s horror-comedy “Takut ke Tak” beating his debut feature into Malaysian cinemas and becoming what must surely be the lengthiest production schedule of any film in the current International Oscar race. Scenes filmed at a busy Kuala Lumpur Int’l Airport, where a clock displays the pre-Covid date of March 6, 2018, seem almost surreal in a movie completed and released in 2021.
The mood is graceful and poetic in early sequences showing Aman (Amerul Affendi) laying his father to rest and observing funeral rites at a cemetery far away from the capital. The atmosphere is much less peaceful in Kuala Lumpur, where Aman lives with his sister and her husband, who is angry about Aman’s failure to contribute to household expenses. Aman’s sole asset is his father’s rundown car that does not meet standards required for taxi services. He’s also colorblind, barring him from ever acquiring a driver’s license. In an effort to raise desperately needed cash, Aman acquires fake papers from a middleman and registers illegally with a ridesharing company.
In the time-honored movie tradition of taxi cabs serving as microcosms of the places they service, “Hail, Driver!” provides illuminating snapshots of multicultural Malaysian society through Aman’s conversations with a large and diverse range of passengers. While his car radio carries news of Malaysia’s 2018 general election, Aman hears from immigrant workers about their lives and talks to locals, some of whom mistakenly blame “the flock of immigrants” for problems such as steep rises in house prices.
Often seen driving around shiny new office towers and residential property developments catering to the wealthy elite, Aman hits rock bottom after being thrown out of home. Unable to afford rent anywhere, he’s forced to live in his car and use public washrooms. He may be financially poor, but Aman’s kindness and non-judgmental outlook allow him to forge a friendship with Bella (Lim), a Chinese Malaysian sex worker who moved to Kuala Lumpur from Penang six years ago for a better future that does not look like it will materialize. Though a Malaysian citizen, Bella feels restless and uncomfortable in Kuala Lumpur, like she’s crashing at someone else’s place. In return for transporting her to and from appointments, Bella offers Aman the spare room in her apartment.
Rahman approaches the sensitive topic of relations between Malays and Chinese Malays with a refreshing honesty and naturalism that contributes positively to Malaysian cinema. The racial and social differences between Aman and Bella simply do not matter to them. What’s important is their bond formed through mutual adversity and the strength each derives from frank conversations about hopes, dreams and the state of things in Malaysia.
“Whoever wins, nothing changes,” laments Aman as election results begin to roll in. Without tacking on an unrealistically happy ending, Nazeem’s thoughtful screenplay suggests positive changes await this odd and likable couple.
Allowing viewers to see the world through Aman’s eyes, cinematographers Fairuz Ismail and Hafiz Rashid create ravishing black-and-white images of Kuala Lumpur’s cityscape at night, and gritty pictures of street life below. The excellent score by Reinchez Ng includes everything from rumbling swamp blues guitar to peppy percussive sounds that punch the story along nicely. Complementing the fine central performances of Lim and Affendi are cameo appearances by top local stars including Bront Palarae, Nadiya Nissa, Namron and Chew Kin Wah.