We learn from movies. How to live, how to love, how bumping your head gives you amnesia almost every time. But can we learn enough from movies to get away with murder?
This question lends pizzazz to what would have been a typical cat-and-mouse thriller in Sheep Without a Shepherd, a Chinese remake of the Indian thriller, Drishyam. Directed by Malaysian filmmaker Sam Quah, Sheep rammed through the billion yuan mark in Chinese box office earnings recently, making him the first Malaysian director to claim that glory.
In Sheep, Lee Weijie (Shawn Xiao Yang) is a movie buff and an immigrant from China, who has fully assimilated in the Thai town of Chanban. He ekes out a living by fixing up Internet connections, raises his daughters with a loving wife in a spacious house (implied to have been a cheap property for being right next to a cemetery), eats and gossips at local joints, prays at Thai Buddhist temples, and follows Muay Thai matches. The rest of his time is spent watching, quoting, and critiquing movies. Save for struggling to bond with an estranged teenage daughter at home and pissing off a corrupt cop on the streets, all is well for Lee.
For his family, not so much. His teenage daughter, Ping Ping (Audrey Hui), is blackmailed for sex by a rich brat, Suchat (Bian Tianyang). While the blissfully-unaware Lee travels out of town, Suchat meets Ping Ping at the tool shed behind her house to have his way with the terrified girl. But awaiting in the shed is Ping Ping’s angry mother, Jade (Tan Zhuo).
A brawl breaks out between Jade and the boy – a visceral scene deftly intercut with the Muay Thai match that Lee was watching in another town. The mother and daughter kills Suchat by accident. To make matters worse, he turns out to be the only son of Lawan (Joan Chen), the much-feared head of the regional police.
Lee comes home to his shaken wife and kids. To protect them from a criminal justice system he distrusts, Lee begins a battle of wits with Lawan by summoning everything he has learned from watching crime thrillers.
And herein lies Sheep’s biggest flaw – the idea of whether someone can outsmart cops using tactics he’s seen from the movies is an interesting premise, but sits awkwardly with the larger themes that seem to have nothing to do with movies as a concept or art form.
That is not to say that Sheep is a lacklustre film. Well-shot and tightly-paced, its stellar cast delivered a gripping story that juxtaposes two sets of desperate parents – one surviving on smarts and the other riding on power – trying to do what they believe is best for their children.
Setting it in election-season Thailand, Sheep adds a politically-resonant layer to the crime drama. The backdrop of which justice is often unserved and public dissent bubbles beneath the surface seems like a strategic move to throw shade at the authoritarian regime of an entirely different nation.
A most telling hint is when Sheep evokes Shawshank Redemption’s famous quote: “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.” A certain government with a certain great wall has definitely sparked real-world riots – an imagery that features prominently in Sheep. Well played, director Sam Quah, especially for a first feature-length effort.
But all these can be portrayed without the excessive reference to movies. Sure, how Lee borrowed film techniques to cover up a murder is fascinating, but that’s about it. With its main conceit having foggy ties to the larger themes, Sheep sometimes feels as much a hodgepodge as the dizzyingly multinational production – set in Thailand, directed by a Malaysian, backed by Chinese money with a cast mostly from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In fact, the filmmaker seems at a loss of how to connect the movie elements to the story it wants to tell. The awkwardness is most apparent when Lawan hears about Lee’s love for movies. With the full force of ferocity that a veteran actress in Thai police’s military-like uniform can emit, Lawan demands her lackeys to dig up the films Lee has watched. This leads to a police procedural scene at its comedic finest – a cop reading out summary plots of movies. Apparently, some cinema audiences in China actually burst out laughing during that scene — a reaction that baffled the director, according to an interview he had with Chinese news outlet Xinhuanet.
Contrast this with Sheep’s source material, Drishyam. First a runaway hit in the Malayalam language in 2013, Drishyam gets a Hindi remake in 2015, which is the one I caught on Netflix. Compared to Sheep, the Indian version keeps a tighter grip on its themes of “visuals can be deceptive” – the subtitle of the film.
Truth hides beneath the veneer of what is shown, from the police underestimating the intelligence of the lowly-educated protagonist, to the surprising shrewdness of an oafish cop when baiting the protagonist to slip up, to the ending that delivers sweet poetic justice alongside a subtext of society’s buried rage against a dysfunctional legal system.
Drishyam’s theme ties up with the element of movies, which can be a form of visual deception through editing techniques and special effects. How movies are involved in covering up a crime is also less outlandish in Drishyam – the protagonist simply learned bits and pieces from police procedural flicks and concocted a plan. Hence, it is plausible that the inspector-general of police could deduce his ploy without a deep knowledge in pop culture.
In Sheep, however, the movie element is blown up. Lee has based his entire ploy on one particular Korean film, which necessitates the laughable scene of Lawan suddenly taking on a movie-nerd persona and Detective-Conan-ing the ruse.
Running over 160 minutes, Drishyam is a slow burn of painstaking set-ups and drip-feeding of information that keeps the audience guessing. Sheep shaved the running time to 112 minutes. The quickened pace is kinder to the bladder and attention span, but it comes at the expense of clearly laying out the moving parts of Lee’s scheme – rendering it far-fetched and difficult to follow.
All in all, Sheep is a remake that deviates from the original, and this is not inherently bad. Both movies explore the extent that parents go in protecting their children, but they end up in vastly different places. Drishyam’s ending wraps up the entire film’s hard-hitting subtext with a satisfying ribbon. Sheep, on the other hand, douses the catharsis of deceiving crooked cops by depicting its consequences – Lee’s youngest daughter, a participant of her dad’s cover-up, fakes high scores on her academic report card. Certainly, there are criticisms that the ending of Sheep was changed to appear more ‘socially harmonious’ (spoilers in link) – a concept heavily promoted by the Chinese government.
But Sheep at least does what a remake should do – peer at its source material’s message from a different lens. It may not be as neat or satisfying as Drishyam, but it has something else to say about the subject and went on to say it, which is more than what we are getting from the slew of safe remakes these days.
Also published on Medium.