Review: Motif (2019)


In first-time feature director Nadiah Hamzah’s crime thriller Motif, calculated cold-blooded murder opens the film. Equally calculated is Nadiah’s touch, or rather grip, on the crime thriller genre. A mix of complex characters and an intricate web of shady individual schemes are cleverly interlocked through the mind the director, making Motif quite a delicious adventure. 

Motif, the Malay rendition of the word ‘motive’, is a whodunnit about the daughter of Hussein, a prominent small town businessman, who was found dead. Crafted in the familiar form of a police investigation drama, the film finds its real resonance in its context of provincial corruption in Malaysia. Small town people of influence taking bribes to be exact. A middle-ranked, no-nonsesne female police officer, played by Sharifah Amani, is transferred to the local town unit to handle the case. She virtually takes it by its horn and flexes some serious muscle in getting the investigation going and sterilising the local police unit, weeding out what’s compromising below her and above her. Director Nadiah is certainly not the first to ‘take the bureaucracy to task’ within a film, in the wake of what’s been happening in the Malaysian political landscape, but Motif is a fair attempt at socio-political commentary. We are led to cast our judgements and point our fingers at certain characters very early on the film, but in relation to that, it packs a few surprises. 


Sharifah Amani has an unrelenting presence as Dewi in the film and the showdown between Dewi and Hussein in an interrogation room is hard to forget. After putting Hussein, whom she thought was the prime suspect for long enough, she unleashed her anger on him in the interrogation room like a pit bull. While most of the movie centred around Dewi and Hussein locking horns, equally interesting was Dewi’s relationship with local constable Rizal. Rizal is the epitome what’s rotten in the local police unit, the efficiency, the potential for compromise and the slighting of women. He had no idea what he was up against when he tried to resist ‘Hurricane Dewi’. It is in their interactional dynamics that we also realise the feminist aspirations of the film (in a good way). Dogged in her determination at bringing justice to people, she appears almost like a superhero character, fighting one too many villains at a time with only one of her. At the same time, dotted across the film are deliberate jibes at the parochial, sexist attitudes of the small town by director Nadiah. Hussein tried to socially reduce Dewi at the beginning by asking her “Aren’t you too young to be a detective?” “Are you married?”. At another point, blaring out of the radio was a talk show in which someone quipped that if Islam says it’s okay for men to have multiple wives, then it must be good. 



Also, Dewi’s moments are riveting because she is paired by Hussein the villain, compellingly portrayed by screen legend Rosyam Nor. In fact, Rosyam has a harder job than Sharifah. He needs to convey a glimmer of innocence beneath the guilty label the film has set him up for. In his moments of grieving, he had to also to show pockets of what looks like a wink to the unthinkable, a ‘murderer-in-the-house’ kind of epiphany. So compared to the straight-laced abrasiveness of Inspector Dewi, Hussein is there to keep the fun in solving the whodunnit. It is Rosyam’s sure-footed and masterful rendition of Hussein that keeps this adventure delicious. Mustaqim Mohamed, who played Rizal, unfortunately, was not in the same league. For a character caught in between Dewi and Hussein, played to so much ferocity by the film’s leads, the actor fell short of delivering the nuances and dilemmas so essential to the role. 


What the film builds up in the first half gets slightly unravelled in the second half when the director tries to introduce too many elements and sudden turns, without having enough screen to justify them. A case in point is Dewi’s pregnancy and relationship with man who was already attached. It does serve to showcase her weaker moments and her own compromises, which stand in stark contrast to her professional intolerance for compromise. However, this duality in her character was not fully explored enough, and made it seem more like a distraction. 

For a first feature from a director who has won top honours from the advertising world’s version of Cannes, Motif is still a well-paced ride which keeps the suspense throughout the film and the payoff right at the very end. It is also a rather stunning film to which the cinematography and production design teams have done a commendable job with the film’s very modest budget of RM500,000. Can we all agree we love the smoky look of the film? 


Motif opened nationwide in Malaysia on 26 September 2019. Go catch it now.

Review by Jeremy Sing


Motif a film by Nadiah Hamzah (Trailer) from PLANET FILMS on Vimeo.

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