Fantasia 2020 Review: SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD, A Thrilling Crime Drama Debut From Sam Quah
Li and his family lead a modest life in Thailand. Though well respected by his neighbours and good at his job, money is tight but he does what he needs to do to ensure their happiness. Li's vast knowledge of crime cinema wows his friends and is an utter annoyance to officers like Sang Kun, who abuses his authority in the neighbourhood, intimidating locals not to take legal action against the son the son of the local, ruthless police chief, La Wen, and an ambitious top politician, Du Peng. A spoiled rotten brat, the son tries to exploit Li's daughter with a blackmail video and she accidentally kills him trying to get it back. Li must now combine his wits and his encyclopedic knowledge of crime cinema to counter a relentless investigation by the police chief.
Sam Quah’s feature film debut, Sheep Without a Shepherd, rocked the Chinese box office last year, quelling the onslaught of international studio tentpole films, even local fare that should have been a surefire fit with Chinese audiences, the Jingoist martial arts flick Ip Man 4. How did he do it? Quah directed a crime drama thriller with emphasis on the thrills. Sheep Without a Shepherd is a genuine thrill-ride that does not ask you to choose sides, you know who to cheer for in the opening moments of the film. Subsequent actions only cement that before the thrill-ride carries over that first lift hill and picks up momentum.
Even with a script written by a community of writers - which writer do you single out for coming up with each move of the pieces on the board? - there are no rugs to pull out here, just deft moves back and forth and an escalating risk factor as Li and Police Chief La counter each other. If you can take something as simple as the sinking of a car in a lake and make it a highlight moment of anxiety and tension imagine what the rest of the movie must be like. It is not about how many twists and turns you can put into a story because that doesn’t fit the narrative. Li and his family need an alibi and have to stick to it, no matter what pressure comes from Wen and her officers.
Your emotions run hot off the hop because director Sam Quah does such a good job of setting your tagonists right away. The dichotomies have been set and Quah clarifies either opponent's skill set. Li has his vast amount of cinematic crime drama knowledge and though he shouldn't stand out in a crowd makes himself memorable to everyone he meets when establishing his family's alibi. Wen has tremendous skills of deduction and a fierce reputation of finding the truth. She's lenient and coddling when it comes to her son but a ferocious tigress the rest of the time.
Officer Sang Kun is our early hint that there is abuse of power and corruption in the police force. Knowing that Wen and Peng try to buy off a victim of their son's unchecked agression shows the discrimination of class. And their son is the epitome of a spoiled brat so when he does die we have no sympathy for him and his parents, whatsoever. We've seen what he has done, we see how he is trying to leverage it against Li's daughter. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
All this sets you up to cheer for Li and his family as they create their alibi then face the aggressive investigation by Wen and her staff. Wait, are we cheering for the bad guy? Morality turns grey in Sheep Without a Shepherd. This isn't a story about right and wrong, rather a story about class divisions and who can get away with what depends on their social standing. In the midst of social uprisings and the ACAB movement a film like Sheep Without a Shepherd will find a much more empathetic audience pretty much anywhere in the World these days.
There is some dark irony at the end of the film that we will leave for you to discover but Sheep Without a Shepherd, a title that hints at Li's role in all of this, rallying his family behind him as they hide the accidental death of Wen’s son, is about the rise of the lower class, locking horns and matching wits with exceptionalism.
Sheep Without a Shepherd is an honest to goodness thrill-ride of a crime drama. An -ism like 'thrill-ride' gets tossed around a lot but here we truly mean it. Few directors knock it out of the park their first time around yet on his first time directing a feature film Quah has found a perfect balance of thrills and chills, and rolling emotions.