Nadiah Hamzah’s Motif (Motive) opens at the black of night. A young girl is seen looking around an abandoned house, her mobile phone torchlight stabbing through the darkness. The muddy floors and the thick, long vines that cover the ceilings and walls give us an idea of how long the place has been inhabited. The fierce sounds of thunder blend together with the faint musical score adding to the eeriness of the scene. And then, a whack to the girl’s head by an unknown assailant who crept from the shadows. (The images painted by Nadia Hamzah and her cinematographer Zainudin Mohamed are beautiful.)
Hamzah’s well-crafted, atmospheric opening sequence is a sharp hook. We want to know who killed her and more importantly as the film’s title indicates, we want to know why. And the first act provides us with plenty to arouse our curiosity. We’re first introduced to Rizal, a local police officer in charge of solving the case. But he’s too friendly with everyone in his small town to label anyone a suspect. Later, inspector Dewi (Sharifah Amani), an esteemed detective from the big city of Kuala Lumpur is assigned to assist in the investigation, which Rizal takes umbrage at.
We learn that the missing girl’s name is Anna, the eldest daughter of the richest family in town. Her mother, heartbroken but composed, says she’s an angel, a straight As student who would never run away or get herself into trouble. But Anna’s exam papers stashed in her drawers tell a different story. Her father (the on form Rosyam Nor), not only has an ego the size of the Three Georges Dam, he also comes off as a slimy creep. Is he the killer? Maybe. He says he isn’t. But his abusive past certainly doesn’t help his case. The fact that he’s deeply in debt adds insult to injury. Or maybe it’s Anna’s ex-boyfriend? Maybe they’re all in it together.
But Motif offers more than just a murder investigation. When we first see Dewi driving towards the small town, we hear a voice in the radio talk about polygamy: “If Islam says it’s okay for men to have multiple wives, then it must be for good reason.” This sexist line isn’t just random, it’s a theme setting statement. Motif is a crime film with feminist undertones. Rizal, though he doesn’t admit it out loud, dislikes Dewi not just because she’s an outsider who doesn’t appear to understand the ways of his town. Dewi’s arrival punctures his ego. There’s a part of him who can’t stand the idea of a woman who’s more intelligent than he is and has bigger balls than he does. He’s spineless, she’s fearless. Sharifah Amani is excellent as Dewi, delivering a believable performance not only during moments that require her to show strength but vulnerability as well (though, she’s more convincing when it comes to the former).
The same can be said about Rosyam Nor’s character who in his first interaction with Dewi, stands with his chest puffing out and asks, “Aren’t you too young to be a detective?” “Are you married?” This dynamic comes to an engrossing close during the interrogation scene at the police station, as two characters brought to life by two bloody talented actors, lock horns. Sharifah Amani and Rosyam Nor bounce off each other wonderfully in a psychological and verbal battle that ends with a bang. I only wish the interrogation sequence was a little drawn out. The fuse that connects to the proverbial dynamite could’ve been a little longer and burned a little slower.
But that’s one of the problems with Motif, isn’t it? There isn’t much of an investigation (in the sense of interrogating multiple people, finding clues, guessing and second-guessing). There isn’t much psychological exploration. A lot of it is surface-level and feels rushed. At one point, a couple of gangsters chase a young boy and beat him up. The scene literally lasts five seconds. How then do we feel the danger of the situation? How do we feel uncomfortable when the scene ends before our stomachs begin lurch?
There are plenty of other things that don’t quite work too. A “discussion” of case suspects is bland. There isn’t much of an intellectual exchange or debate between the characters. Nothing ponderous or ruminative. Just Rizal being whiny and Dewi shutting him up quickly. Speaking of, the Rizal-Dewi dynamic is better in concept than in execution. I wish there was a little more nuance to the Rizal character. A mixture of poor character writing by Hamzah and Honey Ahmad and an ungenuine performance by Mustaqim Mohamed makes Rizal cartoonishly childish and their tango borderline insufferable after a couple of scenes.
None of those criticisms though are as big an issue as the third act, which takes almost everything we like about the first two acts and flings it out of the window. The writing is so convoluted and messy I actually started to forget some of the interesting beats set up in the first half (i.e. what was Anna actually up to?). There’s some stuff about a crazy ex-boyfriend, extramarital affairs, loan sharks, pregnancies, a hard — and I mean HARD — left turn where a seemingly docile supporting character is suddenly revealed to be some sort of “badass” and a bunch of other red herrings. None of which provide any meaning or depth to the actual mystery. It’s not dense enough to be considered a proper thriller cum character study and not fun enough to be a fabulously twisty popcorn mystery. The film’s title is Motif, but when we actually learn WHY the crime took place, it feels more like a deflated balloon than an exclamation mark.