Nadiah Hamzah took cues from Scandinavian murder TV series to craft her debut film Motif

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.