An intricately written film, Sam Quah’s Sheep Without A Shepherd is a rewarding movie that expertly ramps up the emotional tension in a memorable cat and mouse thriller.
Li Weijie (Xiao Yang) and his wife A Yu (Tan Zhuo) run a small business in Thailand and enjoy a happy home life with their two daughters. When their eldest daughter is violently assaulted, blackmailed, and left traumatised by another student, her parents intervene, leading to a dead body that needs to be hidden. Every trace of the boy buried to cover up the accident. However, the missing boy’s parents, dogged detective La Wen (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Du Peng (Philip Keung), push to turn over every rock to find the truth, stopping at nothing until their missing son is found.
An ode to detective thrillers gone by Sheep Without A Shepherd takes its audience on a journey that leaves you compelled and never quite sure how it will turn out for our unfortunate family. Weijie and his family are happy and pleasant; even if they are not wholly comfortable financially, they want the best for their family. When their intelligent daughter Ping Ping gets the chance to go to a costly summer school, they think their future is safe, and Ping Ping’s future is as bright as they can achieve.
This happy environment is tossed away due to the events on that trip, and you figure that thanks to Weijie’s addiction to films (a boast of over watching 1000 films), you think a revenge style flick is coming. Yet, when the family carry out accidental self-defence resulting in tragedy, they know that thanks to that film knowledge, they can get away with a full proof plan…
Emotion runs through Sheep Without A Shepherd, be it the devastation of Ping Pings attack and the resulting damage that it holds on the family as they try not only to recover but to cope with their actions and make sure that they get away with it. The tension runs through their interactions that have you wondering how they will get away with it. Xiao Yang is terrific here as the loyal father who tries to play trick everyone with one heck of a master plan. Though as enjoyable as he is when he is plotting, he shines when he is the hurt father who wasn’t able to protect his daughter when she needed him to and to the guilty husband who couldn’t make sure nothing else happened to his family. His sense of guilt runs through the film as the weight of what happened hangs heavily on the women in his life. It is a far more complex role than you would first think, but he shows his thoughts through his physicality to great lengths.
Equally, La Wen has a lot to handle here as she is obviously in a slowly growing marriage in the distance and a son that she cannot control, so she gives him what he wants to hope that he feels the love she wants to give him. Chen is terrific here as she conveys the anger of a mother who wants to find her son. But also as a police officer who has already gone too far in her career and is next to unredeemable. She teeters that line so well, at times, you are haunted for her as a mother. Though, as soon as the officer hat is on her, you quickly hate every ounce of her and no more so than in her scene with young An An (Zhang Xian).
As you would expect with this type of film, the working class in this small town in Thailand is personable and easy to enjoy. In contrast, almost anyone seen as an authority figure or showing off their wealth are presented as horrible dishonourable people. This apparent difference is not only accentuated in the opening scene as we watch Li Weijie discuss with his friends about films and how the policeman speaks to him. But we see how corrupt La Wen is early on when she snows how a perpetrator committed his crime and isn’t against falsifying the evidence to make sure she gets her man. This divide only widens the more we see the just go against the corrupt and dishonourable.
From a technical standpoint, this is an utter joy thanks to some glorious cinematography from Ying Zhang, who positions his camera in some intriguing places only to let it roam down perfectly to its eventual target. This is a visually striking film that makes use of the bright colours that Thailand has to offer. Similarly, the editing is top-notch and takes the on the nose quality of the film well as it delves into the showcasing how the Li’s will overcome their predicament. As the circle closes in on the family, Hongjia Tang and Xinyu Zu’s editing allows us to feel that suspense, leaving the audience on the edge of their seat.
Yet, for all of that, we know that this family have committed a horrible crime. While the odds are firmly against them getting justice for what happened to Ping Ping due to who committed the act, they deserve some form of punishment despite how well they cover their tracks. To make us feel towards the family, the film has to go hard and heavy with making us still fall on their side. To this, the writing team do wonder with an utterly abhorrent scene of police brutality and emotional abuse.
Make no mistake, Sheep Without A Shepherd is a great film, but it is also one that has a tendency to self-indulge itself, be it from overly long slow-motion scenes, the rain scene in the final act becomes a tad excruciating at one point. Couple that with the occasionally overpowering score that almost takes you away from some of the harder-hitting scenes, and we have a film that just needed to rein itself in just a little to make it the more complete package.
The script also seems to have as many endings as Return of the King, with multiple opportunities for it to end on a sombre note. Thus the ending sadly drags just a little too much as the film tries to have its cake and eat it by tying itself up into a nice bow, even when it is the type of story that does not require it too at all.
Not a perfect film. But Sheep Without A Shepherd has so much going for it that you can forgive its minor faults. A fantastic movie that is full of intrigue that almost sticks the landing.
TRINITY CINEASIA PRESENTS SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD IN VIRTUAL CINEMAS AND SCREENING AS PART OF CHINESE CINEMA SEASON FROM 12TH APRIL AND ON DIGITAL FROM 26TH APRIL.
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