The line between reality and fakery is paper-thin in Dead Pigs, a lacerating satire of rampant capitalism that encompasses every rung of Shanghai society. A generously-paced ensemble piece that winds together a complex tale of architecture, romance and virtual reality, it announces Chinese-American director Cathy Yan on the international film stage. Moving between lavish spectacle and quiet introspection with ease, it surveys a city caught between the past and the future with a wonderfully weighted mixture of tenderness and carefully-aimed evisceration.
As the title suggests, the pigs of Shanghai are mysteriously dying (a timely theme considering the very real news that pigs in China — the world’s biggest pork producer — are currently dying of a deadly virus.) Nobody wants to take them off the hands of the farmers, so they are chucked into the river. But as the saying goes, you can’t put lipstick on a (dead) pig, and soon the swine arise from the water in their thousands.
This metaphor speaks to the country at large, which is rampantly developing but perhaps losing sight of what made it special in the first place. At the heart of it is a new construction project, headed by the American architect Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), which aims to build a massive Western-style condominium of flats, centring around an ‘authentic’ replica of a Spanish cathedral. But one woman (Vivian Wu) remains firm in her small house in the midst of all the looming cranes, refusing to take their more-than sizeable buyout.
Meanwhile, her brother, pig farmer Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), is testing out a new VR device, unable to believe what he is seeing, claiming that it feels just like real life. This delusion extends to his financial decisions, having been conned out of all his money (that he owes to local gangsters) in a questionable investment scheme. Despite losing all his money, he defends his decision-making by declaring that “all investments contain an element of risk”. This central conflict of whether or not to sell is interweaved with the tender love story between Old Wang’s son (Mason Lee) — a waiter pretending to be a businessman — and a disillusioned rich girl (Meng Li); as well as Landry’s exploits during his bizarre only-for-expats side-gig.
It makes sense that this film is executive produced by Zhangke Jia, the Chinese auteur famed for his depictions of a society in constant transition (the recent Ash Is Purest White representing a great summation of his brilliant career). While Jia’s films are more enigmatic and ambiguous than this, Yan has a similar knack for contrasting her characters ant-like against the surrounding landscape and looking beyond the initial weirdness of city life to find the soul underneath. Yet, she is perhaps more palatable for commercial audiences – both in China and in The West – thanks to her generous, Altmanesque approach to narrative construction.
If The Meg showed the future of big-budget Chinese-American co-productions, Dead Pigs sees how these collaborations could work with smaller budgets, roping in David Rysdahl and Zazie Beetz along the way (I won’t spoil the latter’s brilliant cameo here). And Hollywood has already been listening, having picked Cathy Yan as the director of the next Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey. While many media outlets – who presumably haven’t seen this movie – have called her an “unknown”, she is already a far interesting director than some men, i.e. Colin Trevorrow, who have been handed much larger franchises than her.
Cathy Yan is more than up for the task, Dead Pigs showing a remarkable level of assurance for a debut director. Even when characters suddenly break out into song or she lets the occasional scene carry on too long, she has a clear vision of what kind of story she wants to tell and how she wants to tell it. For one thing, she’s made me excited to watch a Harley Quinn movie.
DIRECTOR: Cathy Yan
STARS: Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, David Rysdahl
RUNTIME: 130 minutes