Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Sam Quah Boon Lip, 2019)

“Sheep are happy as long as they have grass to graze, they don’t care if you shear their wool” according to a vox popped farmer in the ironically titled Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Wùshā). Inspired by the Indian film Drishyam, the Mandarin title of Malaysian director Sam Quah’s Chinese remake is simply “manslaughter”, but as the English title perhaps implies if ironically Quah circumvents the censors to issue an oblique broadside to oppressive authoritarianism largely by setting the film in Thailand. 

As the film opens, affable Chinese-Thai IT and internet business owner Weijie (Xiao Yang) is chatting about his favourite thing, movies, with the regulars at his usual haunt, a restaurant run by Uncle Song. Meanwhile, Song tells him about the latest local gossip, the murder of a man who’d recently won the lottery, which is why corrupt cop Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai) has been hanging around but not actually doing much investigating. It’s rumoured that hotshot female police chief Laoorn (Joan Chen), who has a fearsome reputation for being able to solve any case, is going to take over. She eventually does just that, fabricating evidence to push the suspect into confessing. Her tactics may be underhanded and unethical, but at the end of the day, as she points out, it doesn’t really matter. She wasn’t framing anyone and isn’t intending to submit the evidence in court, she correctly solved the crime and exerted psychological pressure to trick the suspect into thinking she had something she didn’t so he’d know the game was up. 

“As long as you are not scared, they can’t do anything” Weijie tells his daughter, reminding her that fear is the only leverage of those like Laoorn when they have no real evidence. Unfortunately for him, he’s become involved with the disappearance of Laoorn’s odious son Suchat (Bian Tian Yang) who, we discover, drugged and raped Weijie’s teenage daughter Pingping (Audrey Hui) during an excursion for bright high schoolers, going so far as to film the whole thing in order to blackmail her into providing further sexual favours. Pingping had been keen to go on the trip, somewhat snobbishly looking down on her lower-class family and seeing it as a networking opportunity to make elite friends. She is perhaps the film uncomfortably implies being punished for her unfilial elitism, but eventually finds the courage to tell her mother Ayu (Tan Zhuo) what happened. Ayu accompanies her to the rendezvous with Suchat and confronts him but he is unrepentant, reminding them that his mother is the police chief and his father a politician so he can do as he pleases before trying to force himself on Ayu at which point Pingping hits him with a hoe and knocks him out. Believing that he’s dead, Ayu buries the body with a recently interred family friend and waits for her husband to come home from a business trip repairing the internet in a hotel the next town over. He eventually returns early, worried that he couldn’t get though on the phone because youngest daughter Anan (Zhang Xiran) had left the receiver off the hook. 

A decent and kind man, well liked by everyone, all Weijie wants is to protect his family. What’s done is done, all he can do is try to mitigate it by utilising all his movie knowledge to change the narrative so that they are merely implicated in the crime rather than active suspects. In this, the mini-feud with useless cop Sangkun actually works in his favour. An earlier episode had him offer some advice gleaned from movies to an old man whose grandson had been assaulted by Suchat. Sangkun was in the process of pressuring him to accept a payoff to drop the charges (most of which he’d have pocked for himself). Another business owner privy to the incident apparently reported him anonymously and was attacked in the street only for Weijie to come to his rescue and be accused of assaulting a police officer. It’s very easy for him to claim that Sangkun is trying to frame him out of pettiness, and very easy for people to believe him because that’s exactly something Sangkun would do. 

Sangkun is the embodiment of casual abuse of power. He doesn’t care about serving the people or protecting the vulnerable, he is only interested in validating himself through authority. Laoorn is not quite the same, but she too is an aspect of the all-powerful state as she marshals all her resources against Weijie, an ordinary husband and father, against whom she has no hard evidence only her much vaunted intuition. She will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to her son, while Weijie is determined to do everything in his power to protect his family. Laoorn underestimates him, as Pingping had, because he is a poor orphan with no education, only later realising that he is clever and resourceful even if he’s pinched his defence strategy from a lifetime of watching crime movies. The pair are engaged in a perfectly matched battled of wits, but only one of them has the power of the state behind her and a gradual erosion of civil rights to allow her to wield it against a personal enemy. 

Filming in Thailand, Quah has a much freer hand to broach the subject of official corruption even if it’s quite obvious that he’s making a point about the overreach of the Chinese state rather than that of Thailand. Weijie’s plight eventually sparks a large scale riot that spreads throughout the country as the populace declares itself thoroughly fed up with the Sangkuns of the world, not to mention the Laoorns or her mayoral candidate husband Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man) who is almost entirely absent from the crisis because all he cares about is the election even if it’s a minor inconvenience not to have his family on show at hustings. Dutpon’s disinterested authoritarian parenting coupled with Laoorn’s indulgence and willingness to enable her son’s crimes through covering them up is perhaps blamed for the “monstrous” young man Suchat was becoming, himself standing in for a generation of wealthy, pampered sons of elites raised with improper boundaries who think they can do as they please because they are somehow above the normal morality. “Good parents” Weijie and Ayu meanwhile find themselves at the mercy of a corrupt faux-aristocracy, abused by Suchat and then rendered powerless in the face of an authoritarian regime. 

Weijie, however, rejects his powerlessness in an attempt to think himself out of the cage in which he finds himself imprisoned. A perfectly plotted psychological thriller, Sheep Without a Shepherd ironically satirises the much cited claim of authoritarians that humanity flounders without a leader as the populace begins to fight back against its toxic relationship with those in power. Nevertheless, its admittedly compassionate and humanitarian conclusion cannot help but feel like an overt concession to the Mainland censors’ requirement that crime can never pay and all transgressions must be owned (even if not directly by those who are literally guilty). Ultimately, however, Weijie redeems himself in the eyes of his daughter, and in doing so subtly reinforces the anti-authoritarian message in instructing Pingping never to be afraid of anything again, freeing her from the oppressive leverage of fear which itself constitutes authoritarianism.


Sheep Without a Shepherd opens in UK cinemas on 21st August courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Chen Sicheng, 2018)

Detective Chinatown 2 posterBox office smash Detective Chinatown successfully pulled off the difficult feat of merging amusing buddy cop comedy with a holiday setting and intriguing cerebral mystery. Given the success of the first film it’s no surprise that the boys are back in town, or, as teased in the finale, in New York where another strange crime awaits their particular talents. Firmly a Chinese production taking place in an American city (though one using American crews), Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tángrénj Tàn Àn 2) tries its best to maintain its unique character while shifting into American crime thriller territory, even if hampered by a stereotypical view of its target culture and some decidedly ropey English language dialogue.

Qin (Liu Haoran), now apparently a student at the police academy, has been tricked into coming to New York for Uncle Tang Ren’s (Wang Baoqiang) wedding to his love interest from the first film, Ah Xiang (Tong Liya). When he arrives, however, Qin quickly figures out that he’s in a room with some of the world’s best detectives – Ah Xiang left Tang Ren for someone with more money and so Tang Ren wants Qin to help him solve a mysterious New York murder for the reward promised by one of the victims’ grandfathers, a Chinatown gangster named Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang). Qin likes a good mystery so sticks around though the situation becomes decidedly more complicated after he finds and discounts the main suspect, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), leaving the trio on the run from the authorities, other detectives vying for the reward, and Uncle Seven’s guys some of whom have their own ulterior motives.

The most satisfying element of Detective Chinatown lay in the genuinely intricate nature of its locked room mystery and elegance of its resolution. Detective Chinatown 2 shifts away from the classical style of a European drawing room mystery for something altogether flashier and more American in keeping with its setting. It is, however, guilty of more than the faults of its genre in heavily signposting its solution from the midway point leaving any serious thriller fan twiddling their thumbs waiting for the penny to drop with ace detective Qin. Though a secondary twist offered after the killer has been unmasked helps to undercut the disappointment of such an anticlimax, it is not quite enough to compensate for the crushing obviousness of the central mystery.

Likewise, where Detective Chinatown existed firmly within a small Chinese enclave of Bangkok where everyone knew everyone, the move into the metropolis of Manhattan robs the film of its small-town charm. Despite the “Chinatown” tag, Chinatown itself is not a big player and as both of our guys are now full outsiders in another culture, we’re treated to a much less nuanced take on local stereotypes with several running gags likely to raise audience hackles with their tone-deaf approach to visualising the multicultural city. All of that aside, shooting in Central Manhattan with American crews also means much less creative freedom leaving the set pieces perhaps less impressive in terms of scale and ingenuity while the cinematography occasionally feels much more like standard American television than a big budget Chinese comedy.

Nevertheless the odd pairing of loudmouth Tang Ren and the comparatively subdued Qin, whose powers find even more impressive means of visualisation as he literally lifts buildings off a map and moves them round, remains the key selling point even though each half of the pair is also subjected to a bizarre round of sexual harassment from a biker boss with a tiny Chinaman fetish to a kung fu master with possible Alzheimer’s respectively. Though Chen generally relies on slapstick, the gags have a decidedly topical flavour – a police chief with terrible hair who makes off colour jokes and wants to build a wall to keep out all the annoying Chinese guys he can’t be bothered to deal with, for example, or the repeated references to immigration and the various dangers faced by those who’ve come from somewhere else and are trying to make a life for themselves. Yet the guys also keep running into people who unexpectedly speak Mandarin – perhaps a sign of the equally unexpected elevated status of Chinese visitors and their all important economic power. Detective Chinatown 2 is a mild disappointment after the duo’s impressive debut, but nevertheless does enough to spark interest in the teased Tokyo-set third instalment.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Screening details for UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand available via official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Chen Sicheng, 2015)

detective chinatown posterCrime exists everywhere, but so do detectives. When one young man fails his police exams because of an unfortunate impediment, he seeks refuge abroad only to find himself on a busman’s holiday when the relative he’s been sent to stay with turns out to be not quite so much of a big shot as he claimed and then gets himself named prime suspect in a murder. Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Tángrénj Tàn Àn) is one among many diaspora movies which find themselves shifting between a Chinese community existing to one side of mainland culture, and a mainland mentality. This time the setting is Bangkok but second time director Chen Sicheng is careful not to surrender to stereotype whilst also taking a subtle dig at men like uncle Tang Ren who can unironically refer to Thailand as a paradise while indulging in many of the aspects which might leave other residents with much more ambivalent emotions.

Qin (Liu Haoran), a young man with a fierce love of detective fiction, has his dreams shattered when his interview to get into the police academy is derailed by his stammer and an unwise tendency towards reckless honesty. His doting grandma who raised him suggests Qin take a holiday to take his mind off things by going to stay with his uncle who is, apparently, a hot shot detective in Bangkok – Qin might even get some valuable experience whilst thinking about a plan B. Sadly, uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) has been sending big fish stories back home for years and though he claims to be the best PI in Chinatown, he’s really a petty marketplace fixer with a bad mahjong habit and a side hustle in “finding” lost dogs. When Tang Ren accepts an errand to transport a statue from a workshop, he accidentally finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of the sculptor who is himself the prime suspect in a heist of some now very missing gold. Qin, tainted by association, vows to use his awesome detective skills to find the real killer (and the gold) to clear his uncle’s name whilst generally serving justice and protecting the innocent.

Despite the fact his secret is clearly about to be exposed, Tang Ran greets his long lost relative with immense enthusiasm (which is, as it turns out, how he does everything). Wang Baoqiang commits absolutely to Tang Ren’s cynical good humour attacking his larger than life personality with gusto though one has to wonder why Qin’s poor unsuspecting grandma thought Tang Ren would be a good guardian for her teenage grandson, especially as his first act is to take him to a strip club and spike what might actually be the first real drink of his life. Qin, quiet (that stammer) and introspective, is not a good fit for the loud and brassy world of insincerity his uncle inhabits, but forced into some very challenging situations, the two men eventually manage to combine their respective strengths into a (hilariously) efficient crime fighting team.

Meanwhile, Qin and Tang Ren are also contending with some serious political shenanigans in the local police department. Two Chinese cops are currently vying for a promotion and the job has been promised to whichever of them manages to identify the murderer and locate the missing gold. Luckily or unluckily, cop 1 – Kuntai (Xiao Yang), is a good friend of Tang Ren’s and doesn’t want to believe he is secretly some kind of criminal genius (but could well believe he killed a guy by mistake). Cop 2 (Chen He) is a hard-nosed (!) type who, for some reason, dresses like a cowboy and has a crush on Tang Ren’s landlady (Tong Liya) with whom Tang Ren is also in love. What this all amounts to is that everyone is stuck running circles around each other, trapped inside the wheel of farce, while the gold and the killer remain ever elusive.

Qin, finally beginning to overcome his stammer, puts some of his hard won detective nouse to the test and eventually figures out what’s going on but, by that point, he’s also warmed to his uncle enough to let him do the big drawing room speech. Filled with slapstick and absurd humour as it is, Detective Chinatown is also a finely constructed mystery with an internally consistent solution that offers both poignancy and a degree of unexpected darkness when the final revelations roll around. It is, however, the odd couple partnership between the sullen Qin (secretly embittered) and larger than life Tang Ren (secretly melancholy) that gives the film its winning charm, ensuring there will surely be more overseas adventures for these Chinatown detectives in years in to come…


Currently available to stream in the UK & US via Amazon Prime Video.

Original trailer (English subtitles)