Director – Sam Quah – 2019 – China – Cert. 15 – 112m
Fantasia Film Festival 2020 virtual edition from Thursday, August 20 and UK cinemas from Friday, August 21st.
This opens with a prison break in which the escapee ends up interred in a coffin next to the corpse of the man who was trying to get him out. That turns out to be a story told by Li Wiejie or Jie for short (Xiao Yang), an insatiable watcher of detective and crime thrillers. The film lays its cinematic cards on the table almost immediately by referencing Hitchcock, montage, sound effects, excitement and The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994). Sheep Without A Shepherd is in thrall to the West’s suspense movies and plays out like one while at the same time retaining its distinctive Chinese character with its emphasis on the importance of family ties and loyalty.
Jie and his wife (Tan Zhuo) run a small store in Thailand. Their daughter Ping known in the family as PingPing (Audrey Hui) persuades dad to fund her to go to summer camp where she is drugged and videoed being gang-raped by privileged brat Su Cha (Beety) and his pals. He later tries to use the video to blackmail her, but Ping confesses to her mum who comes with her to a scheduled rendezvous with the blackmailer, hides in the shadows and then steps out to confront him. In the ensuing violent, three-way struggle Ping kills Su Cha.
Now the family have to cover up their crime. Armed with plots from numerous detective and suspense thrillers, dad takes charge, instructing the family which also includes Ping’s little sister An’an (Zhang Xiran) as to what to say what the police interrogate them. Complications ensue because not only was Su Cha the son of ruthless local police chief Laoom (Joan Chen) whose husband happens to be a candidate in an upcoming election but also local cop Sang Kun (Shi Mingshuai) hates Jie’s guts and would love to pin something on him.
The actresses playing the traumatised mother and daughter are terrific, as is the small child playing the little sister. Xiao elicits all our sympathy because he’s a likeable guy and also smart if uneducated. Plus, those of us who go to the movies like movies, another stripe in the character’s favour. Joan Chen is unforgettable as the police chief turned mother seeking her missing son. Shih also impresses as the cop who picks on Jie.
Much in the manner of Hitchcock, the narrative provides the perfect excuse to torture the family and, in particular, to torture its women in the form of mother and two daughters. A specific nod to Hitchcock includes a scene where Jie must dispose of the boy’s bright yellow car in a lake, hoping that it will sink beneath the surface before a passing shepherd looks up and notices it, which apart from the colour is straight out of the black and white Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).
Also like Hitchcock, this film brilliantly understands ordinary people – in this instance a family – and what makes them tick, which is no doubt why the film has been a huge hit in China. It’s beautifully paced and astutely plotted to boot, with the business of montage from the opening being paid off in the final reel. The film doesn’t hang around and grips from start to finish. A treat.
Sheep Without A Shepherd plays Fantasia Film Festival 2020 virtual edition from Thursday, August 20 and UK cinemas from Friday, August 21st.