Sheep without a Shepherd: The Power of Montage
A Video Essay by Yilin Duan
If you have committed a crime, how can you then prove your innocence? By a perfect alibi? By a witness? Or by public opinion? In the film Sheep without a Shepherd (Sam Quah, 2019), the main protagonist Li Weijie (Xiao Yang) creates all the evidence mentioned above to cover up the crime of his family through the idea of montage. Starting with the question of how to commit a perfect crime by montage, this video essay aims at exploring the effects of this widely used editing theory by comparing the murderer of the case Li Weijie to the director of a film, as montage is used both when Li Weijie tries to fabricate the evidence and when the director wants to affect audiences’ reading and perception of a film. What they both do is to arrange the footages to form a new meaning, so that the interrogators, or the audiences, can understand their thoughts clearly.
I have always been interested in technical post-production stage of films throughout my learning in film studies, and this is why I choose to analyse the power of montage. The style of editing is a very important element of the final film, and it is inseparable from the personal preference of the director. The idea of montage is developed by many former Soviet filmmakers, and one leading theorist among them is Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s contribution to montage editing technique is indelible, therefore he is a very important figure to refer to when talking about montage. I also prefer his theories, which I found very interesting and useful in the editing stage of the film, so in the video essay I used a lot of his quotes to apply to the films and examine the utility of montage. Following this I then also compared Sergei Eisenstein with André Bazin, because they have different opinions toward the style of editing, and each held a very enlightening editing theory, which both makes sense. Since my focus in the video is on montage, Bazin’s theory works as an evaluation of Eisenstein’s.
There are many reasons why I choose Sheep without a Shepherd in relation to this topic. Firstly, its editing aligns with Eisenstein’s theory. There are several different ways of montage used in this film, and I talked about mainly two of them in my video essay. Secondly, it is a very new film released in 2019, showing that even it was several decades ago when Eisenstein suggested his montage theory, until nowadays montage is still a very effective technique for the present cinema. And last but not least, I suspect most people have not seen any Chinese films or done much analysis before, so I am also more than delighted to introduce my personal film of the year, which although is a niche crime theme, but has gained huge success in China and achieved a box office of more than 1 billion RMB.
My video essay consists of mainly three parts. The first part is ‘what is montage’, which can be answered from two aspects: technical and functional. Technically, to create a montage sequence is as simple as ‘splices shots together and adds in sound effects’, which is said by Li Weijie in Sheep without a Shepherd to educate audiences the basic process of montage. But to make this sequence meaningful, the main function of montage must be taken into account. Therefore, I quoted from Eisenstein, that “the combination of two ‘representable’ objects achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented.” (Eisenstein, 1949: 15). Therefore, montage does not simply mean adding any two or more shots together, but the aim is to form new meanings or add emotional effects to the sequence, which cannot be visually presented straightforwardly.
As mentioned above, the second part of the video essay is the comparison between Eisenstein’s montage theory and André Bazin’s long take theory. While they are both very influential film theorists throughout the industry, their editing theories are completely opposite. Eisenstein believes that montage contributes to the plot and meaning of the film, but what Bazin pursues is realism, that the avoidance of editing, i.e., long take shots, is a form of realism of the cinema. Since the two held opposite opinions, I think it would be useful to compare and contrast them, to see what montage can achieve and what it cannot. Bazin himself also did the comparison in his book What is Cinema, arguing that montage ‘impose[s] its interpretation of an event on the spectator’ (Bazin, 1967-1971: 26), while his use of long take and depth of focus helps audiences ‘enjoys the reality’. (Ibid., 35)
The third part is examples of practical uses of montage. Montage can be used in many ways, and in this video essay I took two common montage techniques as examples, one is intellectual montage, the other one is parallel montage, and both are applied in the film Sheep without a Shepherd. Since intellectual montage is one of the most significant concepts suggested by Eisenstein, I therefore quoted from him as well, that intellectual montage means ‘not of generally physiological overtonal sounds, but of sounds and overtones of an intellectual sort: i.e., conflict-juxtaposition of accompanying intellectual affects.’ (Eisenstein, 1949: 82) I focused on the sequence when the police open the coffin. As I captured, on the left side there is only close-up shots of Li Weijie, and on the right side there is close-up shots of the coffin lid. I aim to use this sequence to show that a third meaning can be conveyed by two superficially irrelevant shots, so that Li Weijie’s mental activity can be inferred when he sees the bloodstain on the coffin lid.
To dig further into the idea of intellectual montage, one other function of it that I included in the video essay is to create visual metaphor. I use the scene of the stone lion from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) as an example of visual metaphor. To represent the rise of the people and the triumph of the revolution, Eisenstein spliced together the shots of the stone lion, from sleeping to waking up to rising, which indicates people’s determination to resist and fight for themselves. This use of montage can also create non-visual effects, as Ashley Brown argues that, ‘Sergei Eisenstein uses visual metaphor to teach audiences the benefits of cooperative action from all industries of production and defense.’ (Brown, 2018: 63).
Besides the stone lion, in Sheep without a Shepherd the director also uses goat as a visual metaphor. I took three similar scenes in the film of Li Weijie giving donation to the temple to point out that the emergence of goat is intentionally designed. The goat appears when Li Weijie does not commit the crime at the beginning of the film, and when he confesses the crime at the end, but does not appear when Li Weijie tries to cover up the crime. Though it is not a political propaganda use of visual metaphor, the goat here might stand for Li Weijie’s conscience and criticized him morally.
Finally, the film also uses parallel montage, and one significant scene is the Thai boxing scene, that while Li Weijie is watching the boxing match, his wife and daughter are hit by the son of the interrogator. This fast cross cut on the one hand shows the relevance of the two events, that the temporary faint of the boxer also hints that the son does not die immediately, and on the other hand, the contrast between Li Weijie’s excitement and wife and daughter’s fear also creates a tense atmosphere for the whole scene.
Now that we are aware of director’s ability to affect audiences’ reaction and perception of the film by montage, and finally I went back to the initial question of how does montage help commit a perfect crime. Surveillance footage became the protagonist Li Weijie’s footage, and he reordered them to create a new montage sequence to prove his innocence. Thus, the power of montage is huge, as it can affect the meaning and atmosphere of a story.
- Sheep without a Shepherd, 2019, China, Dir. Sam Quah. Main cast: Xiao Yang (Li Weijie), Chen Chong (Laoorn).
- Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, 1988, Italy, Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Main cast: Salvatore Cascio (Salvatore ‘Totò’ Di Vita – Teenager), Philippe Noiret (Alfredo).
- Citizen Kane, 1941, USA, Dir. Orson Welles. Main cast: Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane).
- Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Soviet Union, Dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein. Main cast: Aleksandr Antonov (Grigory Vakulinchuk), Vladimir Barskiy (Commander Golikov).
- André Bazin, The Evolution of the Language of Cinema in What is Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 23-40.
- Ashley Brown: Visual Metaphors for the People: A Study of Cinematic Propaganda in Sergei Eisenstein’s Film in Elements, Spring 2018, pp. 61-72.
- David Bordwell, The Idea of Montage in Soviet Art and Film in Cinema Journal, Spring, 1972, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 9-17.
- Sergei M. Eisenstein, through Theatre to Cinema in Film Form: Essay in Film Theory, Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 1949, pp. 3-17.
- Eisenstein, the Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram in Film Form: Essay in Film Theory, 1949, pp. 28-44.
- Eisenstein, Methods of Montage in Film Form: Essay in Film Theory, 1949, pp. 72-83.