Monday, December 23, 2019

Sheep Without a Shepherd

I'm not sure exactly how much of a surprise hit Sheep Without a Shepherd is in China - the end credits had Imax and Dolby Atmos logos, and I doubt that films are prepared for premium theaters there just as a matter of course. Yes, there are enough of those screens being built for a high enough population that you may want one or two coming out every weekend, but this film seems so relatively small-scale and non-blockbuster-ish - and, heck, skeptical enough about the police to incur the censor board's resistance even if it is Thai police rather than Chinese - that I wouldn't necessarily expect it to open wide in China.

And yet, there it is, at the top of the box office charts, well ahead of The Rise of Skywalker (the first Star Wars film to get a day-and-date release in China) and apparently Only Cloud Knows and Ip Man 4, which are getting fairly sizable American releases. Meanwhile, its release here seems like a genuine afterthought, basically given two screenings a day rather than four - well, three, but one is at 9am or so and, guys, I can tell you from experience that nobody goes to the early-riser screenings they put on for other movies just because they can pack a house with blockbuster fans - and a lot of those were marked "Sold Out" on Friday and Saturday. That's the sort of "sold out" that means "we're going to run Star Wars on another screen", though, so AMC was probably just thinking of this as maybe something that could sell a few tickets on the margins. I'm not sure how much the good turnout at the 7:10 show on Sunday is a weekend's worth of tickets compacted into one show or what would have happened anyway, but I'm gathering that some folks in Chinatown were genuinely excited to see that thing that was doing well back in China.

One thing that made me smile more than the "this character likes movies a lot" stuff usually does came when it was time to show the actual movies Weijie was watching, and the police groaned at the fact that he had apparently watched 860 of them while waiting around at work in the past year; it's just the right sort of "that's insane but props to him" feel. Plus, at least one of the movies referenced as specifically being useful in cracking his head is a pretty nifty choice - sure, Se7en is a masterpiece (and I'm amused by the movie nerd that put the "7" in the subtitles even when some other things seemed kind of dicey), but Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt is an inspired choice, considering how much of this movie also hangs on someone five or six years old selling her performance. Korean film Montage is the one it openly admits to cribbing a lot from, and while I haven't seen that, it sounds familiar enough that after hearing the description I'm kind of surprised that I haven't seen it at Fantasia or NYAFF or something. Kind of why I stuck a link over there to the right, to remind me to give it a look.

Anyway, surprisingly nifty movie, and I've got no idea if it will still be around come Wednesday. Maybe not the usual Christmas Eve [Eve] viewing, but worth a look.

Wu Sha (Sheep Without a Shepherd)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Sheep Without a Shepherd is the sort of thriller that elicits happily complicit snickers from the audience because they are extremely invested in someone getting away with murder. Well, maybe not quite murder, but you get the point. The filmmakers know exactly what's going to get the audience rooting against the police and manage to make it work even when what they are doing is pretty obvious.

It starts with a jailbreak that's actually a story being told by Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a Chinese man living in the Thai village of Chanban who watches a lot of movies between calls at his network service business. He's a bit tight with money - he, wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo), and daughters Pingping (Audrey Hui) & An-An (Zhang Ziran), have a fair-sized house because a lot next to the cemetery is a bargain - but he relents when 16-year-old Pingping needs 6000 baht (about $200) for a special weekend camp for high achievers. It goes badly, and things get worse when a fellow attendee, Suchat (Beety) shows up with cell phone video to blackmail her into another "date" while Weijie is away on business in nearby Lua Pathom. Ayu interrupts and Pingping fights back, accidentally connecting with Suchat's skull rather than his phone. The next morning, Weijie must call on everything he's learned about avoiding arrest from watching movies to keep what they've done from being discovered, especially tricky because not only are Suchat's parents chief of police Laoorn (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man), but Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai), a corrupt cop who has long had it in for Weijie, actually caught a glimpse of him getting into the victim's car the next morning.

Six screenwriters are credited with adapting the Malayalam-language film Drishyam (the sixth remake, following four in other parts of India and one in Sri Lanka), something which often seems like a recipe for turning a pointed story into mush, but that is not the case here. It's a really impressively constructed machine of a film which lays out where it's going but still makes the audience enjoy the process of getting there, turns dark comedy into something that really stings, and finds plenty of room to bring emotions to a boil even as it's being methodical. The writers and Malaysian director Sam Quah Boon-Lip are able to wear their influences on their sleeves and even find a way to use a mid-credits scene to wring something out of the Chinese "content guidelines" that the film had mostly been mostly able to skirt by being set in Thailand. Quah and company manage to walk an impressive tightrope between the different ways that crime is difficult in the movies and in real life, keeping the audience aware of it but never becoming a movie about movies.

Full review at EFilmCritic

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