REVIEW: Sheep Without a Shepherd (2021)
A film-loving father must use his knowledge of crime flicks to save his wife and daughter after they commit a serious felony. A remake of Jeethu Joseph’s 2013 Indian Malayalam-language thriller Drishyam, Sheep Without A Shepherd sees first-time director Sam Quah relocate the action to Thailand for a suspenseful tale of sacrifice and atonement.
“After you watch more than 1,000 films, you’ll realise that in this world, nothing is impossible”, remarks Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), an easy-going Chinese immigrant who spends much of his time avidly watching films at his friend’s internet equipment store. This declaration is put to the test as the small village life Weijie shares with his wife and two daughters is blown apart when he becomes involved in covering up a murder. After attending a school trip, Weijie’s teenage daughter Li Ping (Xu Wenshan) is preyed on by Suchat (Bian Tianyang), an entitled rich kid who assaults her and uses a video to try to blackmail her into further sexual acts. Their confrontation turns deadly as Weijie’s wife, A Yu (Tan Zhuo), intervenes and in the struggle Suchat is killed. The already grave situation worsens when it becomes apparent that Suchat is the son of police chief La Wen (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Du Peng (Philip Keung). Returning from his business trip to find the aftermath of the incident, Weijie’s imagination springs into action in order to save his family from prison.
A meticulous plan ensues, with Weijie and his family taking a trip deliberately designed to create an alibi. Together they visit sports events, restaurants and hotels, expertly manipulating their surroundings to make memorable impressions on those they come into contact with. Quah skillfully crafts a tense cat and mouse game as La Wen’s prowess in detective work is showcased from the outset of the film. Plunging suddenly from the introduction of Weijie in the sleepy surroundings of the equipment store, into a dramatic police interrogation scene as grippingly familiar as any cop procedural. La Wen sits steeped in darkness face to face with the accused, revealing exactly how she outsmarted their lies and misdirection. Positioning La Wen as a crime-solving savant and Weijie as the daydreaming everyman from the outset, the tension is heightened as their paths become tragically linked.
Sheep Without A Shepherd also benefits from a host of strong performances from its cast. Joan Chen also shines as she impressively juxtaposes La Wen’s intimidating and ruthless efficiency with the vulnerability, and at times, helplessness, of being a mother who has lost a child. Xiao Yang provides the emotional anchor as Weijie’s idealistic confidence is worn away under the pressure to remain a step ahead of the police, as well as the moral compromises it forces both he and his family to commit; in particular, his youngest daughter. The film does well in its exploration of parenthood and illustrates the difficulty of dealing with the inevitable distance and resentment that comes with adolescent teens, yet makes relatable the unquestionable instinct to sacrifice everything to protect them.
Despite the sombre tone the film takes as the police pursuit of Weijie and his family incurs the wrath of the community, Quah still manages to imbue the film with moments of levity and this makes for a journey that is both entertaining and affecting, This balancing act does falter at points, however, as in his clear commitment to playing with style and genre, there are moments where it seems to overpower the narrative. Poignant and charged scenes feel drowned out by music, switches in shooting style sometimes distract from what should be centering brilliant acting; and in these instances, some of the nuances in these scenes can be missed.
Sheep Without A Shepherd is a solid directorial debut from Sam Quah who creates a well-paced thriller that is both entertaining and thoughtful. A talented cast elevates the story and allows for support and sympathy to be granted for both sides. Weijie’s love of film creates his belief in the impossible and provides an unpredictable journey. Quah’s playful direction serves to highlight the twists and turns that movie fans love in features such as these.