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Sheep Without a Shepherd
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by Jay Seaver

"A surprisingly clever little thriller."
4 stars

"Sheep Without a Shepherd" is the sort of thriller that elicits happily complicit snickers from the audience because they are extremely invested in someone getting away with murder. Well, maybe not quite murder, but you get the point. The filmmakers know exactly what's going to get the audience rooting against the police and manage to make it work even when what they are doing is pretty obvious.

It starts with a jailbreak that's actually a story being told by Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a Chinese man living in the Thai village of Chanban who watches a lot of movies between calls at his network service business. He's a bit tight with money - he, wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo), and daughters Pingping (Audrey Hui) & An-An (Zhang Ziran), have a fair-sized house because a lot next to the cemetery is a bargain - but he relents when 16-year-old Pingping needs 6000 baht (about $200) for a special weekend camp for high achievers. It goes badly, and things get worse when a fellow attendee, Suchat (Beety) shows up with cell phone video to blackmail her into another "date" while Weijie is away on business in nearby Lua Pathom. Ayu interrupts and Pingping fights back, accidentally connecting with Suchat's skull rather than his phone. The next morning, Weijie must call on everything he's learned about avoiding arrest from watching movies to keep what they've done from being discovered, especially tricky because not only are Suchat's parents chief of police Laoorn (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man), but Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai), a corrupt cop who has long had it in for Weijie, actually caught a glimpse of him getting into the victim's car the next morning.

Six screenwriters are credited with adapting the Malayalam-language film Drishyam (the sixth remake, following four in other parts of India and one in Sri Lanka), something which often seems like a recipe for turning a pointed story into mush, but that is not the case here. It's a really impressively constructed machine of a film which lays out where it's going but still makes the audience enjoy the process of getting there, turns dark comedy into something that really stings, and finds plenty of room to bring emotions to a boil even as it's being methodical. The writers and Malaysian director Sam Quah Boon-Lip are able to wear their influences on their sleeves and even find a way to use a mid-credits scene to wring something out of the Chinese "content guidelines" that the film had mostly been mostly able to skirt by being set in Thailand. Quah and company manage to walk an impressive tightrope between the different ways that crime is difficult in the movies and in real life, keeping the audience aware of it but never becoming a movie about movies.

Sometimes Xiao Yang veers a little too closely to self-aware as Li Weijie, taking charge perhaps a little too easily once he sees the situation, but he does a nifty job of handling how his irreverence in the early going becomes something between bravery and recklessness lafter on, but he's kind of self-aware of how you have to be foolish to try this. He's a fun guy to watch but Xiao always pitches it so that neither he nor Tan Zhuo and Audrey Hui look foolish, despite the fact that they are thoroughly believable as people who have just been through something horrible and can't quite shake it off. They're believably shaken in ways that movies seldom have room for such characters to be. The family is rounded out by young Zhang Xiran as An-An, who is somewhere in the five-to-seven range and is able to should much more than kids that age usually do in this sort of movie, whether as a character or actor.

They seem even more doomed because Joan Chen gives a downright ferocious performance as Laoorn (which is how her name is subtitled and pronounced, although it's "La Wen" in the credits and seemingly something else on her uniform's name tag). She's introduced as ruthlessly intelligent early on, and while she's seen as a moderating influence at home, she's relentless once Suchat disappears, and Chen dives into the role, happily cranking mama-bear tenaciousness and cranking it up a notch, making Laoorn downright frightening but staying just on the right side of the line where the audience still sympathizes with this monster's motives. Philip Keung is in and out as her somewhat more refined partner and Beety gets the job done as her roofie-dropping son, but it's the actors playing the other cops who help her stand out: Jerry Huang Chih-Wei is a solid grounding force as the one who seems to be trying to just do the job right, while Shih Ming-Shuai's Sangkun goes from impressively nasty at the start to darkly comic as his well-known corruption means that nobody trusts him despite his actually being right later on.

That's a kind of nasty irony that one doesn't necessarily see that much of in thrillers - there's usually just the one kind of bad cop, and watching the two types stepping on each other's feet here is a lot of fun. It's a minor part, because Quah and company obviously don't want to distract too much from how this movie is about two parents who will trample over all sorts of boundaries in order to defend their children, even if it's arguably too late. That eventually gets underlined, but it's well after the filmmakers have given the audience the time to realize that this is the second time they've put two corpses in one coffin or punched up the finale by using Dutpon's political ambitions, previously just a way to illustrate Suchat's privileged position, as a way to escalate well beyond the basic scale of the story. It's a way to make the dangers of that sort of rot even more obvious and shocking without a lot of moral hand-wringing.

Quah and his team get a lot of the thriller basics right - as an example, getting rid of Suchat's car and phone is by-the-book but with each shot and cut executed perfectly - and it adds up to a much better thriller than I was expecting. It's going to get buried in the United States, hitting theaters at the same time as "Star Wars" and a couple of Chinese movies with much bigger names attached, but proving a big hit back in China. It's worth seeking out, though, because the sort of wicked smiles it often inspires can be hard to come by.

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originally posted: 12/24/19 07:23:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/08/20 Dan Saw this in Xiamen China, thankfully had English subs, and loved every second of it. 4 stars
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  19-Dec-2019 (M)

Directed by
  Sam Quah

Written by
  Kaihua Fan
  Sheng Lei
  Peng Li
  Yuqian Qin
  Weiwei Yang
  Pei Zhai

  Yang Xiao
  Zhuo Tan
  Joan Chen
  Philip Keung
  Audrey Hui
  Ming-Shuai Shih

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