Sheep without a Shepherd is a movie that proudly wears its many influences on its sleeve, beginning with a thrilling, Great Escape-aping opening sequence set at a prison internment camp that’s really just a clever way to introduce an insanely cineliterate protagonist. This is sweet family-man Li Weijie (Yang Xiao) who, when he’s not hawking electronics in the small town in which he’s made a decent, middle-lower class life for himself, his wife, and their two cute daughters, is extolling the virtues of watching 1,000 movies so that one can learn everything there is to know about life.
The local police are totally corrupt, whether it’s bullying deputy Officer Sang Kun (Ming-Shuai Shih), who has a personal grudge against our hero, or the female chief, who plants evidence at a crime scene and shrugs it off. Her husband is running for mayor but, inconveniently, their son is a spoiled, troublemaker with psychopathic tendencies. When he films himself sexually assaulting Li Weijie’s unconscious daughter, the teenager is smart enough to tell her mother immediately. But, when the women confront the young man, a fight breaks out, resulting in his accidental death and a major cover-up for their family.
Sheep without a Shepherd is an impressive, self-assured debut feature from director Sam Quah. It’s hyper-stylized, almost like it knows it’s a movie, and indeed film features heavily throughout, particularly when it comes to the deployment of Li Weijie’s ingenious alibi and defence for the crime. He watches movies to get ideas and the machinations of his plot are communicated via exciting visuals even if all the family is doing is riding the bus or eating fancy-looking desserts. The use of fast cutting pays homage to The Raid movies, while a Thai boxing match intercut with a gruelling physical altercation ups the stakes without feeling like overkill.
At its core, this is a low stakes action movie set in a small village rather than a big, bustling city. The film is teeming with social unrest, and it has major ACAB vibes too, which is incredibly timely particularly for American audiences. The hero of Sheep without a Shepherd is an orphaned immigrant with no formal education who’s never once in doubt about his own capabilities, or his right to a good life (“We are the victims” he tells his wife and daughter gravely). The Li family is hugely respected in the community, which makes what happens to Weijie in particular kind of hard to swallow even if it makes sense narratively and realistically speaking.
Women are given equal footing in Quah’s movie, which is actually a remake of a movie called Drishyam, though it doesn’t feel like a re-tread, at least not to a westerner anyway. Weijie is obviously the hero of the story but his wife and daughters have agency and are given the space to take the whole situation much harder than he does. The youngest member of their family does great work during an adorable little interrogation scene, while their teenager shows remarkable strength after going through a horrifying ordeal. Weijie’s wife goes toe to toe with the hideous police chief, too, the women having a contest over who can breathe heavier and more passive-aggressively.
Sheep without a Shepherd is predominantly about societal inequality, and how the law typically protects the rich rather than the poor, but it’s also about the tough, often thankless job of parenting. While Weijie will do anything to protect his family, including covering up a murder, the local police chief and her soon-to-be mayor husband are more concerned about winning the upcoming election than finding their brat of a son. Echoing the familial bonds that bind us, as well as our tendency, as humans, to follow the crowd rather than fight for what’s right (as the people in this town mobilise to do), herds of sheep feature prominently while a goat is shot in cold blood and Weijie’s eldest daughter learns about the animals in class. It’s a neat stylistic flourish that fits neatly with Quah’s vision for his low stakes, but hugely impactful, village-set action movie, in which even time stamps on surveillance footage are exciting.
WICKED RATING: 8/10