Fantasia Festival 2020’s Sheep Without A Shepherd, directed by Sam Quah, is a very fun cat-and-mouse thriller as a father with a love for crime movies finds himself up against a ruthless and extremely intelligent police chief in order to protect his family.
What I really liked about this movie is how playful it is in tone. The opening establishes both Lee Weijie (the perfectly relatable Shawn Xiao Yang) and Laoorn (a ferociously great Joan Chen) as equals, even having them mirror the same line of dialogue after crafting a story and solving a really inventive crime respectively. Even though the catalyst for the cat-and-mouse story is pretty dark, the twists and turns are enjoyable.
Lee Weijie discovers that his wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo) and daughter Pingping (Audrey Hui) had murdered Suchat, the son of the aforementioned police chief and an aspiring politician after he had drugged and sexually assaulted PingPing and then tried to further extort her with video evidence of that assault.
This scene had particularly smart editing as the shocking physical struggle between mother and daughter, leading to Suchat’s death is interspersed between scenes of Lee Weijie enjoying Muay Thai boxing, completely unaware of what’s happening.
The son, Suchat (Brian Tian Yang) is undoubtedly a horrendous human being so when Lie Weijie finds out about his murder and begins the process of covering it up using his knowledge of films, it’s not hard to consider this the right thing to do, and an act of heroism. Of course, we later learn, through the film’s conclusion, that this course of action will lead to tragic consequences that question whether or not Suchat deserved to die and whether covering up the crime was correct.
In a way, the film tricks us into rooting for one family because of their class, ingenuity and love of film, and not the other, successful and wealthy family. This juxtaposition of two desperate families trying to do all they can for their children is the crux of the film and also at the centre of the message of morality it’s trying to give us.
One family relies on street smarts, assimilated knowledge through entertainment and genuine friendships and connections, the other relies on education, accumulated power, control of others and intimidation. It seems, at least at this point, that it’s clear who the good guys and bad guys are.
So, we’re fully behind Lie Weijing, Pingping, Ayu and the family’s youngest An-an (Zhang Xiran) as they carefully craft an air-tight alibi, that admittedly does require a large amount of suspension of disbelief, absolving them of suspicious for Suchat’s disappearance. We get a lot of tension here, particularly in a twist on conventional car chase, which sees Lee Weijie attempting to dispose of Suchat’s car but having to evade traffic cameras, traffic stops and the potential witness of a goat-herder.
A Sheep Without A Shepherd plays out a bit like a heist movie, where everyone in the family including the adorably young An-an must play their part correctly and say the right things. We see scenes of Lee Wiejie grilling his family in a mock-interrogation, pushing An-an to cry. It’s cruel, but for them, the stakes are high. But this adds further tension when we see the real interrogation, with the family members separated. We hope that they won’t contradict each other and that An-an will make it through.
Then there’s a really clever scene where Laoorn, investigating her own son’s disappearance discovers that Lee Weijie loves films. There’s then a super meta sequence where she figures out that he drew inspiration from the film Montage to create a montage of events that stitch together into one timeline to provide them with an alibi, getting the witnesses to unwittingly perjure themselves, all revealed with a literal movie montage.
Until this point the film, even though we’re clearly on the side of the Lee Wiejie, the film had been careful not to villainise the hard, powerful and officious Laoorn, who is, after all, a mother trying to find her missing son. But she crosses the line in a harrowing scene in which she orders the family to be beaten in front of the little An-an. Zhang Xiran gives a stupendous performance as the conflicted girl who who struggles with what to do and confesses. This tips us over the edge into fully wanting her to get her comeuppance.
There’s a distrust of authority that permeates Sheep Without A Shepherd. The film is back-dropped by an ongoing election, and the events of this story begin to intertwine with the political landscape. To an extent, then, the film can be seen as a criticism of the political ruling class. But, as is a reoccurring motif of the film, there are clever implications that Thailand is being used as a stand-in for China here.
This can be extended further to consider Weijie’s love of film, and art as defiance in and of itself. When dictatorships are formed it’s usually art, literature, film and other creative outlets that form a big part of the resistance against them. Perhaps Quah is making a deliberate statement here by placing Weijie, armed only by having watched an excess amount of films, go toe-to-toe with a brilliant and successful authoritarian figure.
There’s also the theme of visual deception, which is what ties in the overall use of movies, a form of visual deception to entertain, with the other themes of A Sheep Without a Shepherd. Politicians give off a certain image that belies what’s actually happening; a lowly-educated immigrant can be a more worthy adversary than he would appear. What we think we’re seeing isn’t what we’re seeing.
All of this adds up to a dramatic and tense faux-climax where we finally find out who has been one step ahead of the other the whole time. Quah, cleverly drags this scene out like a gameshow revealing who has won, with long periods of slow-motion, amplified by rain fall. It’s a really neat effect that slowly builds into the cathartic release of noise and action – a very literal payoff.
But, as I’ve alluded to, the conclusion to this scene is a fake-out, we think it’s over and we think we know how we feel but A Sheep Without A Shepherd still has more tricks up its sleeve. Those paying attention during this scene, even though there’s a lot happening, will already have some clue about what it is.
In a complete reversal, we see the human cost of all these cat-and-mouse games, the reoccurring motif of a goat, typically a sacrifice, becomes extremely clear. The realities of what transpires throughout the movie become evident as we realise no-one has won when we see a grieving and broken Laoorn, and a reticent and troubled Lee Wiejie come face to face one last time.
This ending, cleverly foreshadowed in the film’s opening moments, goes someway to undercut all of the film’s messaging on corruption and anti-authoritarianism, opting instead for something slightly more ambiguous and certainly less triumphant. Ultimately that’s the genius of A Sheep Without A Shepherd, it is effortlessly entertaining, but also packs a didactic message about morality and a hefty emotional punch.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here