“I saw it in a movie” is something everyone has said at least once, and it’s this phrase that’s the essence of Sam Quah’s feature film debut, Sheep Without a Shepherd. The film’s main character, Weijie (Xiao Yang), lives by that phrase as movies have been his only form of education. He’s an obsessed film buff and spills his knowledge of the medium and its techniques any chance he gets. He speaks with the same enthusiasm as everyone does when they speak of their passion with someone who may or not may feel the same. He makes a point of telling his friends he’s seen more than 1000 films, and this makes him believe he’s a master crime-solver able to close cases faster than the police force – especially the cop Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai) who bullies everyone in Weijie’s poor Thai community. Despite Weijie having no formal schooling, he’s smarter than most. When his family becomes involved in a crime, his movie knowledge arsenal is the only thing he has to try to outwit the corrupted cops and protect this family from the wrath of its wealthier and more powerful police chief (Joan Chen). Sheep Without a Shepherd screams “ACAB” and “eat the rich,” a film about class discrimination, police violence, and the system’s abuse of power, but above all, it’s about the lengths a father will go to protect his family and the strength of a father’s love for his daughter.
Weijie is a working-class family man barely getting by. He has a beautiful wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo), two beautiful daughters, Pingping (Audrey Hui) and An-an (Zhang Xiran), and a lovely home – the only reason they can afford to live there is because it’s adjacent to the local cemetery. He’s a loving father who tries to provide the opportunities for his daughters that he never had, and he’ll do anything for them. So when Pingping accidentally kills her rapist Suchat (Bian TianYang), the violent son of the police chief and a politician, Weijie knows that with their wealth and power, they will do anything to take down those responsible. The film emphasizes how the line between victim and perpetrator is often blurred, but the view of a crime by police is always one-sided. Weijie hopes to outsmart them to protect his family. He studies clips of Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution to craft the perfect alibi with the same kind of genius manipulation, and studies various crime films to prepare his family for interrogation. He’s intelligent and meticulous, like a Hitchcockian narrative. As the hardened, cunning police chief with her designer sunglasses begins to suspect something isn’t right and sniffs out the flaws in his story, the investigation intensifies, the family makes mistakes, and all you can do is hope they’ll get away with it. The film truly knows the importance of the “thrill” in thriller, creating a film that’s stressful and gripping from beginning to end.
The film owes so much to its cast who are all exceptional in their roles, even the littlest cast member, Zhang, who must act with immense emotion during one of the film’s most brutal scenes. The weariness that hangs over the film as the investigation goes on is felt on the family’s faces. While those around them are living their lives as normal, oftentimes with gaiety, the family’s mood juxtaposes those around them. They’re trying to move on like nothing happened, but you can feel the weight of their guilt on their shoulders. Another impressive turn is Chen as the police chief. It’s a commanding and forceful performance. To her, the importance of this case is two-fold, and her motherly instincts and instincts as a cop clash. The rash decision making that results, like forcefully arresting the family with no evidence, sparks protest and unrest not unlike what we’re currently seeing.
The script, written by six writers and based on the film Drishyam by Jeethu Joseph, is impressively constructed, but the one thing that hinders the film from being perfect is its struggle to tie it all up in its last ten minutes. It’s one of those films where its ending should have come three scenes before. Technically, though, the film is an absolute marvel. The cinematography by Ying Zhang is visually striking from its very first frame as it plays with lighting and different tones from yellow, green, and blue. The film’s Thailand location is stunning in its architecture for which the production design complements. But the editing by Hongjia Tang and Xinyu Zu is truly the standout. There are some cool choices made, for example, splicing together two fight scenes, and the film’s unique use of slow-motion throughout. The latter is never offputting, and it’s used to create tension and emotional emphasis. And the editing of the police interrogation versus Weijie prepping his family for the questions to come isn’t done to the same perfection as the scheming in Parasite, but it has the same effect.
You would think that a film about a film-obsessed character would go in a predictable route that an equally film-obsessed audience would see coming; however, that’s not the case. You never know which move each player will make next. Sheep Without a Shepherd is an exceptional ode to crime thrillers and cinema lovers, with the affecting relevance of how the roar of the victimized can topple their oppressors.
Sheep Without a Shepherd will play on demand at the Fantasia International Film Festival starting August 20.