'Motif': Film Review

Courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival
Two out of three acts ain’t bad.

Malaysian director Nadiah Hamzah makes a welcome debut with this Kuala Lumpur-set crime thriller.

The case of a missing girl opens up several cans of personal and professional worms for a Kuala Lumpur detective in debuting Malaysian director Nadiah Hamzah’s Motif, a crime thriller that sits at the intersection of genre and critique, and which almost pulls off its ambitious aims.

Rolling in issues of institutional and cultural sexism and class rigidity in a provincial Malaysian town, Motif makes its world premiere at Udine's Far East Film Festival, where it found its production support in the festival’s development program. While Hamzah, who co-wrote the overly complicated screenplay with producer Honey Ahmad, demonstrates a strong eye for visuals and clearly has something on her mind, the pic also smacks of first-film missteps and ultimately has trouble maintaining its narrative momentum.

Nonetheless, a fresh voice that almost defiantly presents its Muslim characters as mundanely average and has no trouble gently pointing out the casual misogyny that practically defines the female experience — anywhere — these days is a welcome one, and it should win Motif a place on the festival circuit, particularly at niche events. Creative streaming outlets would also do well to take a look.

The story starts with teenaged Anna (Khayrani Kemal) poking around an abandoned hotel deep in the bush around Tanah Merah, though it’s never made obvious what she’s looking for. Before long it becomes clear that Anna has gone missing, and the small town’s (possibly) sole detective, Rizal (Mustaqim Mohamed), is charged with finding her. In classic small-town crime fashion, the chief of police asks big city detective Dewi (Sharifah Amani) for help — which Rizal resents. Naturally, Anna turns up dead in a well on a bungalow lot, which happens to be owned by the town’s wealthiest man: her father Hussein (Rosyam Nor).

From here, Hamzah and Ahmad hit most of the expected beats in the gently noirish film Motif aims to be. Behind the scenes is an unhappy marriage, another woman, money problems, a loan shark and a community closing ranks against the outsider who’s disrupting the status quo — and that’s just on Rizal’s side. Dewi, who to be fair is given incredible depth and resonance by actor Amani, herself is the “other woman” in her personal life and is constantly fighting to be heard in a police department that brushes her off as too young and too female in her work. With only a few exceptions near the end (Dewi literally mutter something about all men being “the same”), Hamzah does a great job of showing, and not telling, Dewi’s experience, as well as that of the women around her, chiefly Hussein’s wife Suri, played with a nice balance of dignity and rage by Sherry Merlis.

But that carefully observed film only lasts for the first two acts, and sadly spirals into an overwritten, convoluted mess of redirects, red herrings and muddled narrative in its final frame. Hamzah piles on an unnecessary miscarriage, that aforementioned loan shark and a crazy ex-boyfriend of the femme fatale, who becomes fatale-ish quite out of left field, and wraps it all up with a “twist” that’s more baffling than creatively surprising. It all plays out as if Hamzah and Ahmad realized they were coming to the end of the road and didn’t confidently know where to go.

Which is not to say that Hamzah doesn’t have style and a vivid voice to go with it. Together with cinematographer Zainudin Mohamed, she displays a light touch in making the most of the wild surroundings and juxtaposing them with the simmering unrest in the town; thankfully the duo avoid the temptation to get out of control with the shaky cam in the film’s concluding passages, opting instead for steady images that let it be known what’s going on (at least action-wise). Tech specs are fine for what was likely a limited budget, and Teoh Eng Hooi and Irena Taib do a nice job creating a thick atmosphere with a moody score. Motif is imperfect, but Hamzah is one to watch.

Production company: Wayang Works
Cast: Sharifah Amani, Rosyam Nor, Khayrani Kemal, Mustaqim Mohamed, Ideil Putra, Emma Tosh, Sherry Merlis, Sharmin Edora, Azhan Rani
Director: Nadiah Hamzah
Screenwriters: Nadiah Hamzah, Honey Ahmad
Producers: Muhammad Bahir, Farah Al Amin
Executive producers: Adam Firsham, Farah Al Amin, Honey Ahmad
Director of photography: Zainudin Mohamed
Production designer: Lee Tze Loong
Editors: Muhammad Bahir, John Hafiz
Music: Teoh Eng Hooi, Irena Taib
World sales: Wayang Works

In Malay
86 minutes