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Review: Joan Chen is the ultimate parting gift in the loopy ‘Sheep Without a Shepherd’

A female police chief kneels to address a little girl in the movie “Sheep Without a Shepherd”
Xiran Zhang, left, and Joan Chen in the movie “Sheep Without a Shepherd.”
(Kino Lorber)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

When a year of obsessive movie-watching is used against a suspect by a single-minded police squad in the elaborate Chinese thriller “Sheep without a Shepherd,” it’s both amusing (838 films viewed!) and, if this critic is being honest, vaguely disquieting. Will binge-crimes become the new thought-crimes? (Yikes, what does my fascination with ‘70s TV movies say about my actions?)

Then again, Malaysian-Chinese filmmaker Sam Quah’s Thailand-set yarn — a remake of the Indian noir drama “Drishyam” — is ultimately a loopy, stylized celebration of the kinds of byzantine, trap-laden suspensers that have delighted audiences from “The Purloined Letter” through Hitchcock’s wronged-man oeuvre and the career of M. Night Shyamalan.

In fact, movie fan, family man and friendly Internet service whiz Li Weijie (Yang Xiao) very much relies on his deep well of perfect-crime cinema knowledge to save his wife Ayu (Zhuo Tan) and victimized teenage daughter Ping Ping (Audrey Hui) from certain prosecution by Joan Chen’s corrupt, iron-willed police chief La Wen. Herself a mother, and married to a wealthy mayoral candidate, La Wen trades menacingly protective stares with Ayu at one point, and it’s the kind of righteous-mom faceoff energy that keeps the stakes goosed when the rudiments of Li’s intricate alibi gambit — while admittedly clever in its psychology — threatens to sink under the weight of its many needed coincidences.

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Whether snarling behind shades in uniform or off hours in elegant dresswear, Chen is a rule-breaking hoot, never more so than when she’s gearing up to heap abuse on a near-tears little girl in order to break her. Never mind the operatic atonement sentimentality that leaves the ending of “Sheep Without a Shepherd” a head-scratching letdown — you’ll want Chen’s cranked-up bad-cop face as the ultimate parting gift.

'Sheep Without a Shepherd'

In Mandarin and Thai with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Starts July 30, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; available Aug. 6, Laemmle Virtual Cinema


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