IT is always good to have a first in local cinema, even if the “first” only relates to two of your favourite film stars. Motif is a significant first in that it unites Hero Malaya Datuk Rosyam Nor and Sharifah Amani, the versatile disciple of the late, great Bangsa Malaysia filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, on the big screen with brilliant results.
When there is Rosyam around, perfectionism is the name of the game. Whenever he plays a hero or a villain, he goes all out and makes his characters convincing and enjoyable, to the extent that we remember them a long time.
And when there is Amani around, viewers are guaranteed the presence of a strong, determined and somewhat opinionated "iron lady" who does not need any knight in shining armour to save her. In fact, she can easily take care of herself and even rescue a wimpy guy or two in the process.
Award-winning Nadiah Hamzah, who shares a similar vision of creating strong and independent female leads with Amani, makes a welcome silver screen debut with Motif, a crime thriller set in a fictitious town called Tanah Merah.
No, this is not the Tanah Merah of Kelantan which was named by Chinese navigators and historians as Chih Tu centuries ago. Even if there is a Tanah Merah Police Station with its name written in bold letters in one scene, Nadiah and her crew filmed all of their scenes in the West Coast — Kuala Lumpur, Nilai in Negri Sembilan and Fraser's Hill in Pahang, sometime last year.
Motif begins with missing girl Anna (Khayrani Kamal) who was last seen at a run-down hotel in her hometown. She is the daughter of Tanah Merah's richest businessman, Hussein (Datuk Rosyam Nor), who seems to be happily married to businesswoman Suri (Sherie Merlis). They also have a second child, teenager Anis (Sharmin Edora).
Enter no-nonsense Bukit Aman police detective Inspector Dewi (Sharifah Amani), a hardworking and headstrong young woman who has worked her way up in the male-dominated police force.
Dewi joins forces with an old friend, Tanah Merah Inspector Rizal (Taqim Zaki), who seems to think he can handle Anna's case all by himself. Dewi pays a visit to Hussein's house and despite his uneasiness at being questioned by an inspector who "does not look like one", he begs her to leave no stone unturned in finding his eldest child.
Dewi is an unorthodox cop who does not fully go by the book. She probes rather deeply into Hussein's business life as well as Anna's examination results and her relationship with her schoolmates. Her meticulousness soon makes Hussein feel uneasy, then he begins to question her credibility as an investigator.
Unperturbed, Dewi soldiers on, despite some trouble on her homefront. She is the second wife of a rich businessman in Kuala Lumpur (Redza Minhat) who is always pestering her and chiding her for not spending enough quality time with him. Worse, his first wife is arrogant and unkind towards her, and appears to like finding fault with her.
Dewi soon learns that Hussein's "happy family" is not what it seems. The businessman is in financial trouble and Suri actually bailed him out of his financial tangles by buying over a large share of his company. And unknown to Suri, Hussein is having an affair with a guest relations officer named Yasmin (Emma Tosh in a commendable big screen debut) and plans to marry her.
The good detective also learns that Hussein's second love has something to do with a business deal involving the tycoon and her parents.
Meanwhile, some of Tanah Merah's ordinary folk who have benefited from Hussein's charity and generosity begin to detest Dewi as a "meddling outsider" and even send intimidating messages to her. Even Rizal feels that Dewi is "unfairly" poking her nose into Hussein's private life.
All this while, Dewi suspects that Hussein's business rivals may have something to do with Anna's disappearance, but the truth is a lot darker and closer to home. Even Dewi's favourite hawker in Tanah Merah, the soft-spoken and humorous Faizal (Iedil Putra Alaudin), is not who he seems.
Director Nadiah does a great job at making Motif a compelling story about a dedicated professional who excels in her work yet suffers at home. She also deserves the thumbs up for taking apart a seemingly happy family scenario bit by bit to reveal how heinous crimes are not necessarily the dirty work of outsiders.
Her cinematography is excellent, with lots of scenes of Dewi's car moving along winding roads from Kuala Lumpur to Tanah Merah, which is itself rustic and scenic. And the abandoned hotel where we last see Anna looks as creepy as one in a horror flick.
However, the story becomes a bit of a mess in its third and final act, which leads up to the interesting plot twist. The unveiling of the real villain is done rather hastily and the conclusion does not answer all questions about Anna's disappearance and the villain's true motives.
Weaknesses aside, Amani gives arguably her most stellar film performance since Sepet. It is not easy to play a cop, but she succeeds with flying colours, despite her small stature and somewhat schoolgirlish voice. Audiences get to delve into her deepest thoughts because the story is told from her point of view, and they can easily root for her all the way.
Rosyam is also cut out for the role of Hussein, who is an ambiguous character yet initially looks like a villain. The businessman may come across as sexist, patronising and condescending towards Inspector Dewi, especially in a scene where he almost strangles her in the police station, but deep down he is a man who loves his daughters.
Taqim is decent as Inspector Rizal, even though the character can be occasionally annoying with his irrational defence of Hussein, who seems to be his idol. Veteran actress Sherie, who last played Rosyam's wife in Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend last year, also gives a commendable performance as a stoical wife with pent-up rage.
But the best supporting acts go to the trio of Emma, Azhan and Iedil. Emma is great as Yasmin, a femme fatale, while Iedil is the show's "hidden menace". Azhan is vicious as the village Ah Long (moneylender) and such villainous roles have suited him perfectly since his star turn in the popular television drama Nur.
Motif is a treat for all Malaysian women who love independent-minded heroines like Inspector Dewi. Even if it has several loose ends, it is a compelling drama and not at all slow-moving. Here’s hoping that this first-time big screen partnership will return stronger than ever.
DIRECTED BY Nadiah Hamzah
STARRING Sharifah Amani, Datuk Rosyam Nor, Khayrani Kamal, Taqim Zaki, Iedil Putra Alaudin, Emma Tosh, Sherie Merlis, Sharmin Edora, Azhan Rani
DURATION 86 minutes