Who is the “Man on the Run,” the title figure of the new documentary premiering on Netflix this weekend? He’s well known to many international jetsetters, among them Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton, Emily Ratajkowski, Jamie Foxx, Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keyes, and Miranda Kerr, as well as to his co-conspirator the former Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and dozens of financiers and investors. To them and to the press, he’s known by the nickname “Jho Low”; to the dozens of journalists and law enforcement officers working to track him down he is Low Taek Jho.
What did he do? In a few short years, he became one of Malaysia’s most public, prominent figures, rising from a shadowy past to the very top of the investment and entertainment world. You might have seen him thanked, personally, by DiCaprio for his funding of The Wolf of Wall Street. Foxx is on record recounting Low’s extravagant largesse, flying him and others to celebrate a New Year in, first, Australia, then halfway across the world to Las Vegas, in his private jet, where he reportedly paid his crush Spears one million dollars to jump out of a cake. Owner of a super yacht and several astonishingly lavish properties, he dated Kerr and several supermodels and, without any apparent skill or ability, made himself a fixture among Hollywood’s elite. He even purchased Marlon Brando’s long-ago lost On the Waterfront Oscar at auction for $600,000 to give as a gift to DiCaprio (a gift the actor later returned, learning of Low’s crimes).
For having risen from total obscurity to the apex of international celebrity and fortune, Jho Low became known as “The Asian Great Gatsby.” It’s an interesting appellation, given DiCaprio’s himself having played F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creation, the American ideal of re-inventing oneself to be able to become anyone or anything. But Jay Gatsby, born Jay Gatz of North Dakota, did not come by his money innocently, and nor did he have any grand plan for his wealth; wealth was nothing other than the end goal of his grand scheme, and in the end it achieved nothing. Neither did Low Take Jho. His only ambition was, it appears, his own wealth and fame.
Man on the Run follows the enigmatic Low from his origins in Malaysia to his international rise to celebrity. His wealth was built on a stunningly bold scheme, apparently hatched and conducted with the full cooperation of the now-deposed Prime Minister Razak, to exploit a sovereign wealth fund called 1MDB, one established with the purpose of benefiting the people of Malaysia. Over the 2010s, with Razak’s support and the participation of several international banking firms, including America’s Goldman Sachs, Low funneled off a staggering $4.5 billion dollars illegally from the 1MDB fund, for no purpose other than to fund his lavish lifestyle.
The worm turned on Low in 2015 when journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown investigated leaked financial documents that exposed the 1MDB scheme and then set off a global investigation, one that led to Razak’s conviction. Low is now a fugitive, his whereabouts unknown, facing dozens of charges related to the multi-billion-dollar scandal. Director Cassius Michael Kim presents interviews with a number of those with first-person knowledge of the story: not Low himself, obviously, but with Rewcastle-Brown, who broke the story, 1MDB whistleblower Xavier André Justo, and jailed former Prime Minister Razak himself, who continues to profess his innocence despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
The story told in Man on the Run is compelling, if awfully complicated. Director Kim does his best to use high-tech graphics, news coverage, and stylish, modernized location footage—along with some occasional re-enactments—to trace the convoluted path of Low’s graft. There is, though, really no way to convey the facts or the importance of the matter without talking heads, and while each of the film’s interviewees are clear and forthright about their knowledge or findings (well, not Razak himself, but the investigators and journalists), the documentary relies so much on their continuous verbal exposition the facts of the case can get hard to follow. Using text onscreen can help only when someone’s not talking; sometimes text flashes by onscreen so fast it’s impossible to read all of it. One might reasonably wonder if this same story might be better told in a true-crime podcast or a longer docuseries; even a well-scripted narrative film could key in on and convey a few focused, dramatized moments, say in the vein of the recent, excellent She Said.
While its narrative may be more labyrinthine than can be easily followed in a ninety-minute documentary, Man on the Run nonetheless lays bare the incredible scheme executed, to now successfully, by a man who created a version of himself from next to nothing. He did so with the full cooperation of his own country’s top government official, the participation of top international banks, and while jet-setting with a host of celebrities. What Man on the Run does best is to demonstrate just how unfettered corporate capitalism can foster an individual greed that runs amok; the ways to wealth in Man on the Run never involve mere hard work or good will, but require and reward taking from others. To see Low enact this scheme with such brazen greed and so many complicit in its operation is nothing less than stomach churning.
Man on the Run debuts on Netflix January 5, 2023.