After debuting at the top of the Chinese box office last year, Sam Quah’s Sheep Without a Shepherd makes its way to North American audiences as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival. At once a tightly wound thriller and a ferocious indictment of class discrimination and abuse of power, its arrival feels especially timely in an era of social and political unrest.
A networking specialist whose lack of formal education is offset by his almost encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, Li Weijie (Xiao Yang) spends most of his free time in a small eatery in the village of Chanban, quoting films like The Shawshank Redemption and discussing plot elements with kindly Uncle Song (Paul Chun). His nonstop enthusiasm gets under the skin of Sang Kun (Ming-Shuai Shih), a corrupt neighborhood police officer more concerned with terrifying the locals than solving any crimes, and who maintains a longstanding grudge against Weijie.
When Weijie’s daughter Ping Ping (Audrey Hui) is blackmailed by Suchat (Bian TianYang), the spoiled son of a local politician (Philip Keung), she fights back with the help of her mother, Ayu (Tan Zhuo). The ensuing struggle concludes with a body on the floor of the family’s garage, and Weijie — returning home from a business trip — leverages his considerable knowledge of suspense films to concoct a nearly airtight alibi. As he says confidently, “when you’ve seen over 1000 films, you learn that anything is possible.”
But no matter how many films Weijie has viewed in his lifetime, it’s not enough to prepare him for the ruthless tactics of Suchat’s mother, the local police chief (Joan Chen). Despite eyewitness testimony and video footage that clearly places Weijie and his family out of town during the time of Suchat’s disappearance, the chief can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong, and she has no qualms about dragging Ping Ping in for interrogation alongside her younger sister, An’An (Zhang Xiran), or beating the parents in front of their children. As neighborhood outrage grows over the persecution of the Li family, citizens take to the streets in protest, and tensions threaten to boil over into violence on both sides.
Sheep Without a Shepherd does a solid job of balancing the family drama with its larger, more ambitious themes, such as exploring the way affluence and lack of discipline can lead to the creation of young men with no moral compass, that are often prone to horrific acts. Seeing the way Suchat’s parents ignore him (in the case of his father, who’s more focused on his mayoral campaign) or make excuses for him (like his mother) feels all too familiar — it’s like Suchat was created when the worst qualities of Brock Turner and Ethan Couch were thrown into a blender.
Elsewhere, the narrative of downtrodden citizens rising up against police brutality and abuse of power has echoes all across the United States, especially in cities like Portland where violent clashes between protestors and cops in riot gear are a frequent occurrence. Of course, director Sam Quah couldn’t possibly have known the state we’d find ourselves in when he was making the film, but it still comes across as eerily omniscient.
With a carefully constructed, multi-layered screenplay, great performances from Xiao Yang and Joan Chen, and some inspired directorial flourishes, Sheep Without a Shepherd offers a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse with a wicked sense of humor and a genuinely surprising conclusion.