There are few female voices in genre cinema, and there are even fewer in a traditionalist context like that of the Malaysian film industry. In 2007, the Far East Film Festival had the pleasure of hosting for the first time a film by a female Malaysian director: Zarina Abdullah’s effective horror film Chermin (lit. “The Mirror”). Twelve years later, one of the festival’s discoveries arrives with police thriller Motif, directed by newcomer Nadiah Hamzah. A revelation whose absolute world premiere the FEFF will be hosting but which it can also boast of having supported from the phase of its creative incubation. In 2015, in fact, producer and co-writer Muhammad Bahir took part in the Ties That Bind lab which the FEFF organizes with European producer organization EAVE (European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs) to encourage productive cooperation between Europe and Asia.
Motif focuses on a police investigation and its most obvious innovation is the female perspective that the director imposes. Protagonist Dewi (Sharifah Amani) is a police officer who is sent from the capital of Kuala Lumpur to a provincial area, Tanah Merah (lit. “Red Earth”), to investigate the disappearance of the young daughter of the local community’s richest family. From the beginning, her arrival is greeted with distrust by her male colleagues, who are doubly annoyed by the fact of having an outsider who is also a woman intrude in the community. Especially because Rizal (Mustaqim Mohamed), the cop who is supposed to be her backup, has a family relationship with the girl’s father Hussein (Rosyam Nor, whom some might remember as the protagonist of Mamat Khalid’s When the Full Moon Rises, seen at FEFF 2008). The latter clearly has something to hide and Dewi immediately suspects his role in the death of his daughter, but the investigation into the disappearance soon takes a dramatic turn and the lines of enquiry she unearths lead to unexpected revelations.
The female point of view of the story, written by director Nadiah Hamzah together with Muhammad Bahir and Honey Ahmad, is not limited to the choice of a female protagonist: while investigating in Tanah Merah, Dewi also has to face, by phone, her own complicated family situation in Kuala Lumpur. We discover that she is the second wife in a polygamous relationship and that her relationship with her husband Ilham and with his first wife Lena is going through a bad patch just as Dewi is about to become a mother – a subplot with an unexpectedly dramatic payoff, as the ongoing investigation reveals disconcerting connections and parallels with Dewi’s personal problems.
Shot with skill and distinguished by an engaging narrative crescendo, Motif’s biggest strength is the performance of Sharifah Amani, an icon of the Malaysian cinema of the last fifteen years since her debut in the memorable Sepet (2004), the late Yasmin Ahmad’s breakthrough film. Her role here is rich with nuance, and she plays it with generosity and subtlety. Despite a few too many special effects – an inevitability in Malaysian genre cinema – the effective combination of Sharifah Amani’s experience and the director’s first-time passion bodes well for the fate of Motif and for Nadiah Hamzah’s future career.