Audiences will be rooting for a working-class family to get away with manslaughter in “Sheep Without a Shepherd,” a gripping Chinese crime thriller set in small-town Thailand. Centered on an ordinary guy whose extraordinary film knowledge holds the key to keeping his family out of jail, this cleverly scripted item marks an auspicious feature debut for Malaysia-born, Taipei-based director Sam Quah. After grossing a stellar $191 million domestically in late 2019 and mid-2020 rerelease, “Sheep” ought to attract plenty of viewers in limited U.S. cinemas from July 30 and on streaming from Aug. 6.
Setting what must be some sort of record for the most remakes in the shortest time, “Sheep” is the sixth version of “Drishyam” (2013), a Malayaman-language Indian hit written and directed by Jeethu Joseph. Remakes in Kannada, Telegu, Tamil and Hindi have followed in India, along with a Sinhalese production in Sri Lanka. With its punchy depiction of ordinary people standing up against police corruption and political malfeasance, this socially and politically charged story is ripe for further remakes just about anywhere.
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Audiences will warm instantly to Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a friendly Chinese immigrant who runs an internet service shop in Chanbar, in northern Thailand. Although the only house Li could afford was a discounted dwelling next to a graveyard, there’s nothing cut-price about his love for wife A Yu (Tan Zhou, “Dying to Survive”) and their daughters, 16 year-old Ping Ping (Audrey Hui) and An’An (Zhang Xiran), who’s 6 or 7. In amusing early sequences we also discover Li is a movie buff with encyclopedic knowledge of crime films.
Li’s film expertise becomes the movie’s critical component when Ping Ping and A Yu accidentally kill Suchat (Bian Tianyang), a rich kid Ping Ping met at a school camp. The boy, who was attempting to blackmail Ping Ping after filming himself drugging and raping her, is the son of Du Peng (Philip Keung), a wealthy political candidate. Worse still, Suchat’s mother is Laoorn (Chinese acting royalty Joan Chen, in great form), a feared police chief earlier seen fabricating evidence to ensure a conviction.
Viewers will need little convincing to agree with Li when he says there’s no point pleading justifiable homicide in a case involving such a powerful family. Instead, he buries the body next door and begins constructing an alibi inspired by the crime films he’s so familiar with.
Part of it involves staging a family outing in which seemingly innocuous items like bus tickets and ATM withdrawal records later become matters of monumental importance. Another key aspect is theater of cruelty-like training in which Li adopts the character of a scary police interrogator and coaches everyone in exactly what to say, and how to say it, when they meet the real thing.
Scenes such as these pay off handsomely when Laoorn and nasty sidekick Sang Kun (Shih Ming-Shuai) inevitably track down Li’s family and are unable to break anyone down with ferocious questioning or the mental and physical torture that follows. Zhang Xiran deserves a special nod for her performance in scenes that must rank among the most intense to feature a child actor. Importantly, there is nothing gratuitous or exploitative here.
A big part of the film’s appeal lies in the grounded humanity of the central characters. Wonderfully played by Xiao, who’s best known for comic roles in two “Detective Chinatown” films and the spinoff TV series, Li is clever but no genius. He makes mistakes along the way, some of which derail the plan and force him to perform even riskier maneuvers. On the other side of the equation, Laoorn is never presented as a one-dimensional monster. Excellent scripting and Chen’s finely calibrated performance show Laoorn is not just a ruthless professional but also a mother shattered by the disappearance and presumed death of her son.
A story like this can’t help seeming far-fetched at times but the emotional stakes are so high and the plot so pacy and intricately woven that most viewers will gladly suspend disbelief and enjoy a ride packed with hair-raising close calls and narrow escapes.
This beautifully photographed and superbly edited film deals adroitly with social and moral issues. When news of the family’s treatment becomes public, “Sheep Without a Shepherd” enthusiastically depicts ordinary citizens rioting against police brutality and corruption. But we are also reminded that regardless of circumstances a human life has been lost. The film’s smartly judged conclusion will leave viewers with the clear and uplifting impression that justice has been fairly and appropriately delivered to everyone involved.
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