Cathy Yan’s sharp, elaborate debut is a commentary on tradition, progress and class in modern China that dazzles with insight and wit.
The entire country finds itself stirred up by breaking news: thousands of pig corpses float up to the surface of the river towards the major cities. The animals were killed by a mysterious disease which caused panic, stopped people from eating pork and butchered farmers’ earnings. In the background of this news-worthy story that takes over the media, a small community tries to fight its aftermath while battling its own problems.
The first of its members we meet is Wang (Haoyu Yang). Hanging out with other farmers, he proudly calls himself an investor, but it quickly turns out that he fell for a scam and lost all his livestock to the disease. Deprived of life savings and income, he finds himself owing money to a local crime lord, who only gives him two weeks to pay it back. His son Zhen (Mason Lee) waits tables at a restaurant where he meets Xia Xia (Meng Li), a rich girl bored of her sterile life who longs for purpose. Wang’s sister Candy (a powerful, uncontained performance from Vivian Wu) is an owner of a beauty parlour that leads her team with a whole lot of energy. When she’s not at work, she ferociously fends off a company which tries to buy her old family house, the only remaining building in the bulldozed area. One of the people on the development team, Sean (David Rysdahl), works as an architect of a new neighbourhood, hoping to “bring Western perspective to China”.
As we watch their lives interlock, the director takes us right into the middle of the social landscape of rapidly changing Shanghai, picturing the transformations through various perspectives. In Dead Pigs, tradition fights progress, principles and integrity stand against wealth. “What do you want if not money?” Xia Xia asks Zhen from the hospital bed when he runs small errands for her. The people will only care about you if you own something of material value, the film repeats time after time, not without tiny glimpses of hope emerging from defiance and goodwill. But as the film swings from one standpoint to the other, it doesn’t forget to season it with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
With her first feature, Cathy Yan proves a natural ability for creating vivid, expressive, fascinating characters. She’s proficient at using visual language to create a sense of a personality, often before the actors get to speak. By assembling certain personality quirks or habits and placing them in carefully crafted environments, she introduces us to relatable individuals with engaging stories. Each time, it takes just a few sequences to know what they’re about. Take Candy: she checks in with her employees with a morning debrief that looks partly like a mixture of a cheerleading routine and an army training. She owns a poodle whose pictures she paints. She exercises to the aerobic videos from the eighties and decorates her old house with flowers and fairy lights to brighten up the post-apocalyptic landscape that surrounds it. Old Wang loves technology, eagerly following the progress and trying to fight for a slice of the future with his own hands. Sean keeps himself motivated with monotonous speeches that rephrase “I am talented, I am important, I will succeed” in a gazillion of ways. Maintaining an absolutely idealistic vision of his work, he basks in his special status he never quite achieved in his homeland. Burdened by money worries, Zhen observes his customers quietly as they talk about things that seem very distant from a perspective of a waiter. Xia Xia spends her time fine dining with friends and revelling in her possessions. Only when she’s left alone, she gazes into the distance, smoking cigarettes at the rooftops and staring into the city lights. All of them have distinctive traits – these foundations help us understand the characters’ needs and wants as they interact with each other.
The film is also a visual stunner. From the wide shots of ravaged fields predestined to be a brand-new neighbourhood, the modest buildings of villages, through the blues, pinks and yellows of neon in restaurants and bars, to occasional looks at the bright city lights of Shanghai, the cinematographer Federico Cesca flicks through a rich picture book with the representants of the entire society on its pages. The beautiful compositions place emphasis on luxury and magnify poverty for a greater contrast, speaking through the details.
Unravelling the network of human connections, we discover a poignant discussion about the cost of globalisation and its implications. The director suggests that nobody can escape it, even if they engage with it unknowingly. Xia Xia watches American films and dreams of becoming a dancer for Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson (never mind the fact one of them is dead; she can dance for the remaining two, as she clarifies). Presenting the idea with a group of Chinese girls dressed in flamenco costumes, the developers planned their new project around “an authentic Spanish experience”, cramming the skyscrapers made of glass and concrete around a full-scale Sagrada Familia replica – nobody mentions whether it includes finishing it, or following its progress for more authenticity. When a talent agent approaches Sean, she seems particularly overjoyed when she hears he can’t speak Chinese. Later, one of the gigs that Sean models for uses his all-American image to sway the audience’s approval for a project.
But even if the notions of modernity and global values have seeped through the surface, the people like Candy stand up for tradition with the smallest of gestures. She’s protective of the house her family owned for generations and refuses to give it up even when it’s the last building standing. The area is about to be gentrified by Golden Happiness Properties, who ran out of ideas to battle the “PR nightmare” of a stubborn resident. After all, they’ve successfully relocated most of the inhabitants from the neighbourhood. Money paved the way for all their plans, and none of the executives imagines that one can find something more valuable than a fat cheque. The uncompromising company seeks profit first and foremost and uses the human factor to justify it: in his passionate speech, Sean uses a pre-planned rhetoric of building new communities and giving flats to those in need to defend the development. But when the traditional notions don’t bring an expected outcome, he backpedals, speaking of individuality and independence instead.
While the film approaches its finale, a curious chain of cause and effect rapidly unknots itself in front of us. When something impactful happens to anybody on the society ladder, the chain reaction will affect the rest of it sooner or later. Yan looks at this concept from different angles, twisting and turning the story to get to the core of the issues she depicts; she uses the varying perspectives and burgeoning relationships as a catalyst for conclusions. And when we reach a karaoke sing-along at the film’s end, even its final ray of hope doesn’t smother the questions that kept on building up all along.
Dead Pigs opens as a part of the London Film Festival, screening in the First Feature Competition.
- Dead Pigs (2018)