The one to watch

The one to watch

NADIAH HAMZAH has come out with a slow-burn suspense thriller that combines murder with male chauvinism and polygamy.

The 86-minute Malaysian film, Motif, had its world première at the Udine Far East Film Festival in April, with the Hollywood Reporter saying that it “is imperfect, but [Nadiah] is one to watch”.

Made with a modest budget of RM500,000, the film will finally hit Malaysian cinemas this Sept 26.

The story centres on a missing teenager named Anna (played by Khayrani Kemal) who was last seen in an abandoned hotel.

Detective Dewi (Sharifah Amani) is assigned to the case. Anna’s father, the chauvinistic Hussein (Rosyam Nor), takes an instant dislike to Dewi, and feels she is not capable of finding his missing daughter.

At the same time, Dewi is also battling an internal conflict within herself. And when Anna is suddenly found dead, the situation takes a turn for the worse.

Others in the cast include Mustaqim Mohamed, Iedil Putra, and Emma Tosh.

The film was shot around Kuala Lumpur during a 14-day period in 2017. I was given a chance to view a few clips from the film, which I found to be impressive.

The interactions between Rosyam and Sharifah, in particular, are something to watch out for.

Explaining the inspiration behind Motif, her first feature film, Nadiah says: “I had been watching a few Scandinavian murder TV series, and I love them.

“Their shows have a lot of female detectives. Their heroes are never perfect. They have [flaws]. I like that, because it makes their characters more human.”

She says this is her reason for giving similar imperfections to lead character Dewi.

Part of the plot also focuses on the issue of polygamy. Nadiah elaborates: “If a married man wants to marry his girlfriend, he has to get the permission of the first wife.

“But I found out that my relative runs a business [which brings married men and their girlfriends] to Songkhla in Thailand, where [the couple] can get married easily and without much fuss.

“The man does not even have to get the permission of his first wife. All he has to do is pay a small fee. I was so surprised that such [a] business exists.”

However, Nadiah emphasises that the film will not pass judgement on this issue, nor will it contain a sermon on its ill effects.

She explains that the mystery remains the main focus of the film, while polygamy is just a sub-plot.

Asked how she got into filmmaking, Nadiah says that ever since she was a girl, she has wanted to be a ‘storyteller’.

Her parents are both chemistry lecturers, while her five siblings are all engineers. “I am the odd one out,” Nadiah adds with a laugh.

After graduating with a master in fine arts (film and TV) from the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts in New York City in 2011, Nadiah trained under notable filmmakers such as the legendary Spike Lee.

She made a short film set in New York City called Hujan Panas, which dealt with a young man making sense of his life and having doubts about marrying his fiancée.

Her effort earned rave reviews, and she was dubbed ‘the next big thing’. Everyone was eager to see how she would progress to her first feature film. But it took her many years to reach that point.

She explains: “I was an idealist. I had wanted to direct my first feature film the moment I graduated.”

However, when she returned to Malaysia, Nadiah instead began working as a copywriter.

She names the late film director Yasmin Ahmad as her biggest inspiration. “I love the way she explores human relationships in her works. She started her career as a copywriter, [and so did I].”

And just like Yasmin, Nadiah moved from copywriting to directing commercials.

One of her biggest regrets is that she never got the chance to work with her idol.

“But I have worked with people who have worked with Yasmin,” she says.

“My first two bosses worked under [her]. I keep bumping into people who have a connection with her. I can feel her spirit.”

All the same, it took her about eight years to finally realise her dream of making a feature film.

She learnt the hard way that directing feature films in Malaysia is not easy, even after you have managed to get funding for it.

However, Nadiah refuses to let her past negative experiences get her down.

She has already begun work on her second feature, a horror film along the lines of Olivier Assayas’ 2016 supernatural thriller Personal Shopper.

“I have just started to write the script,” she says.

There are few female voices in genre cinema, and there are even fewer in a traditionalist context like that of the Malaysian film industry

There are few female voices in genre cinema, and there are even fewer in a traditionalist context like that of the Malaysian film industry

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.

Paolo Bertolin

There are some scenes where we had to fist-fight and two of them are as real as it gets

There are some scenes where we had to fist-fight and two of them are as real as it gets

AWARD-WINNING actress Sharifah Amani has worked with many leading men on the big screen but top actor Datuk Rosyam Nor seems to have eluded her for a long time.

She has always been a fan of Rosyam whom she describes as an exemplary actor for his “3Ds” — discipline, diligence and dedication — and her wish to star with him has finally come true in Motif.

Directed by Nadiah Hamzah, Motif is an action film where Amani plays a tough police officer who investigates a major crime in town.

Rosyam plays the prime suspect whom she pursues relentlessly.

“He’s always been a role model for me, and we’ve met many times over the years,” said Amani.

“When I first met him a decade ago, I felt a little intimidated because of his strict and no-nonsense look. His muka (face) is really garang.”

However, the respected actor and producer was friendly, chatty, witty and relaxed. He even sounded youthful, and a far cry from his KL Special Force no-nonsense character Inspector Roslan.

“His humility and friendliness were magnetic. He showed great appreciation for his juniors in the industry.

“And, best of all, he looked forward to co-starring with me someday,” revealed Amani.

Despite being an A-list actor, Rosyam humbly attended sessions conducted by the film’s acting coach, Amani’s mother Fatimah Abu Bakar.

“He was there every day to help my mother guide the younger and newer actors but he also sought her feedback on certain scenes involving intense confrontations between his character and mine. He’s really a gentleman!”

SOMETHING NEW

Playing a cop was one of Amani’s dream roles but it required lots of physical action and guidance from real-life policemen.

“The week-long police training we received was tough but less than what the Gerak Khas guys went through. I was tired and a little bruised but satisfied that I tried something new,” she said.

“And here’s where Rosyam, who has vast experience in action films, gave me useful assistance.”

Amani said that Rosyam, who did most of his own movie stunts, such as jumping on cars and from first-floor windows, showed her the ropes.

“I was a bit scared performing the stunts but Rosyam made them look simple during our two-month filming around the Klang Valley late last year.

“He assured me that I would not get hurt leaping and rolling as safety nets and mattresses were always there to catch me,” explained Amani.

Asked about scenes where she fought with Rosyam, Amani explained that they made her feel “on cloud nine”.

“There are some scenes where we had to fist-fight and two of them are as real as it gets.

“He told me to imagine I was battling his infamous KL Gangster character Tailong, the vile “snake man”, so I went all out to pulverise him until the director yelled ‘Cut!”

Amani said Rosyam was “delighted” to be her sparring partner because he liked to see actors “depart from their comfort zones”.

“He admitted that he was surprised when he learnt that I took up the protagonist’s role. Nevertheless, he later congratulated me for a job well done.”

While her first team-up with Rosyam, which she describes as “Rosyamani”, is an action film, Amani would love to reunite with him in a character-driven film.

“I’d love to be in period dramas with Rosyam. He shines too as a character-actor.”

FOUR OTHER FILMS

Besides Motif, Amani will appear in four other films at year’s end.

“There’s Zombitopia directed by Woo Ming Jin, and in it I’ll be fighting zombies in an apocalyptic Klang Valley once again. It’s a bit like KL24: Zombies but with different characters,” she said.

Amani will also appear in Syafiq Yusof’s school comedy Sekolahaha alongside Adibah Noor and YouTube stars Luqman Podolski and Adib Alexx, also known as The Vine, and the long-awaited Gol Dan Gincu 2, alongside Datin Diana Danielle.

Last but not least, there is Mencari Rahmat, a Malaysianised version of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance Of Being Earnest.

Directed by Al Jafree Yusop, it features a star-studded cast that includes Namron, Amerul Affendi, Nadia Aqilah Bajuri, Adibah and Fauziah Nawi.