Cathy Yan’s feature film debut—before she made Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn), as the first person of Asian origin to helm a Marvel movie—is inspired by an absurd real-life event that made headlines in 2013: 16,000 dead pigs flooding the rivers in Shanghai. And the first shot, fittingly, is that of water: we see a man having an ecstatic experience at a VR booth. His name is Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) and he will go back home to find that the pigs in his farm are dead.
It sets up the themes of the film, that shuttles between escapism and reality. Candy (Vivian Wu), a beauty salon owner, lives in her own bubble, in her family house, with her pigeons and evening tea, even though the land around the house has been cleared off for a dream fantasy housing project—these type of houses are called ‘nail houses’ in China. In another side of Shanghai is Wang (Mason Lee), a waiter in a neon-lit swanky bar where he meets Xia Xia (Meng Li), a rich girl, and develops feelings for her. Only gradually does it emerge that Old Wang (brother), Candy (sister) and Wang (son) are family.
Yan makes these revelations beautifully, after drawing us into their respective, individual realities, as if they are seemingly unrelated. What begins as a multi-track narrative full of urban alienation segues into an effective family drama. But Dead Pigs has a wider scope: a vibrantly colourful critique of contemporary China, of real estate, displacement and human connections (it makes sense that one of the film’s Executive Producers is Jia Zhangke).
Like a lot of Asian cinema, commentary on class conflict comes with dark comedy and poetic ironies. Xia Xia’s car hits a fruit-seller’s cart, but when she offers money to the wife, she is too proud to accept it and asks her to leave. Wang is even prouder. Even though he and Xia grow closer, he doesn’t tell her about his desperate need for money. He resorts to small-time conning by faking accidents and throwing himself in front of cars in the hope for compensations—when one of the owners offers to take him to the hospital, he desperately and shamelessly demands money.
Other narrative patterns emerge: Candy wants to keep the family house at any cost, even though accepting the deal from the real estate company makes more practical sense; Old Wang’s financial troubles are so deep—because of the dead pigs—that he doesn’t get the fuss about saving the house. ‘What is so precious about this house? Grandma’s furniture? Silly memories…Random shit,’ he tells her, in an impressively staged scene on a rainy night when the power goes off, and the only source of light is a torch.
Thrown into the mix is Sean, an American expat in charge of the posh housing project that promotes mall culture and model townships with faux European-styled architecture. Wan, a second generation Chinese who has grown up in America, has said in interviews that the character was her way to look at her homeland through the eyes of an American immigrant in China, and for a change not the other way round. But it’s also about how the Chinese see a white man, and the privileges that come with it. Sean’s presence further broadens the film’s scope. David Rysdahl brings a tentative, unsure body language to the character, who supplies a lot of wry humour at his own expense, till we are given a scene where his vulnerabilities come to the fore.
The climax of Dead Pigs is the stuff movies are made of: a surreal setup that mixes farce and melodrama, where all the characters are brought together. The media is there, too, and a reporter describes it “like a true Hollywood movie”, except it doesn’t quite end there. It’s more like an illusion of a happy ending, with the last shot echoing the first: we see water, and something is rotting in it.