Cathy Yan’s debut feature already shows an assured and clever director’s eye.
Urban inequality and the rapidly changing landscape of China are at the center of Cathy Yan’s first feature Dead Pigs. A sharp satire filled with plenty of colorful characters, Yan’s debut loosely takes inspiration from an incident that occurred in 2013, when more than 16,000 dead pigs were found floating on the Huangpu, the river flowing through Shanghai. But instead of investigating the cause behind the deadly virus that kills the pigs, Yan chooses to zero in on the human story behind it, exploring five different characters from different social classes who, in one way or another, are impacted by the chain of events leading up to the death of the pigs in question. The result is an ensemble piece that is quirky and funny as it is compelling and gritty.
Set mostly on the outskirt of Shanghai, Dead Pigs begins with Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), one of the farmers who has to deal with the mysterious pandemic that kills his pigs one by one. Wang first assumes that he can salvage his big loss by selling the meat of his deceased pigs to some local butcher shops. But when he realizes that his effort is futile, he decides to start dumping the dead pigs into the river around his house, and unbeknownst to him, all the local pig farmers have also done the same thing.
Wang’s main problem, however, isn’t the failure of his farm, but a big debt he owes to the local shark loan. So in an attempt to pay off that debt, Wang goes to his sassy, successful salon owner sister Candy (Vivian Wu), hoping she will loan him some money or even sell the old family house to eager property developers. But Candy is unwilling to do what both her brother and the company asks. Her emotional tie to the house is much stronger than any amount of money offered to her. Even after a charming expat architect named Sean (David Rysdahl) tries to talk to her gently, Candy is still not bothered to sell the house.
The result is an ensemble piece that is quirky and funny as it is compelling and gritty.
Candy’s determination provides Dead Pigs its emotional core. In a lot of ways, Candy represents a community that not only refuses the fast-changing development that will only benefit the haves, but also one that still respects the value of Eastern traditionality in the face of Westernization. Sean, on the other hand, symbolizes everything that Candy stands against. He is the white guy living in the East who’s only interested in advancing himself without ever once thinking of the harm he might bring to the locals.
When Yan zooms in on the juxtaposition between these two characters and what they represent, Dead Pigs is at its most compelling. But more often than not, the movie gets lost in its ambitious, mosaic storytelling. The romantic subplot involving Old Wang’s busboy son, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) and rich, spoiled girl Xia Xia (Meng Li), in particular, is a little distracting. Though the dynamic between them is portrayed as tenderly as possible, and both of Lee and Li’s performances are never less than solid, their relationship is not fully fleshed out. It’s not until the climax — where an intense showdown between Candy and a machine crane ends up in a delightful karaoke sequence — that Zhen and Xia’s subplot ever fully collides with the other characters.
Still, even without those flaws, there’s still plenty to admire from Dead Pigs. Yan’s direction, especially is a standout, giving every moment heart and energy. The visual, lensed by Federico Cesca is crisp, full of beautiful long-takes and aesthetic angles. The edit from Alex Kopit allows the movie to flow at a perfect pace. And the performances Yan draws from the cast, especially from Wu and Yang, are uniformly phenomenal. It’s not a surprise to see her chosen to helm Birds of Prey after witnessing what she accomplished in Dead Pigs.
While sometimes Dead Pigs gets lost in its ambition, Yan’s energetic direction keeps the movie engaging throughout. It’s a darkly funny and quirky satire about the impact of Westernization on China, and an even more excellent ensemble piece. Yan isn’t going anywhere.
Dead Pigs premieres on Mubi February 12th.