Dead Pigs

 

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An intriguingly different movie that pleases while arguably losing its way.

 
Dead Pigs

 

We have here a film which for two thirds of its length successfully exhibits a character all its own: it's not a masterpiece but it is pleasingly distinctive. The last third is less successful but for a debut feature this is certainly very promising. The filmmaker in question, writer as well as director, is Cathy Yan a Chinese-American. One of her central characters, Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), is an American architect, but the setting is Shanghai and the film's opening scenes introduce us to a range of individuals whose connections with one another will soon become clear. In addition to Sean, there's Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), a middle-aged but unmarred woman who lives in the city and runs a beauty salon there, her brother (Yang Haoyu) who is a pig farmer in a nearby village and Candy's nephew, a young man named Zhen (Mason Lee, son of Ang) who is attracted to a rich girl, Xia Xia (Li Meng).

 

The film takes place at a time when pigs are dying and their carcasses are surfacing in huge numbers in the Yangtse, a notion that draws on a real-life incident. This is relevant to the plot since it puts the pig farmer out of business and under pressure over an unpaid debt. Nevertheless, there is also a sense of these corpses taking on a symbolical tone due to the fact that Dead Pigs is a mordant comment on modern-day society, its heartlessness, its class divisions and the ruthless quest for material success that drives it. It's this world that encourages Zhen to pretend to his father that living in Shanghai has made him far more prosperous than he actually is and to conceive a desperate plan to raise money. In contrast Xia Xia and her family represent those supported by their wealth. However, the film pivots on the fact that Candy wants to cling on to the family home where she now lives alone and which has become the last remaining building in an area being developed. This large-scale project is being carried out by the company which employs Sean Landry as its architect and pressure to sell is put on Candy both by him and by her brother who begs her to agree.

 

The central situation brings to mind the Brazilian masterpiece Aquarius (2016), but that's a comparison that serves to emphasis the unusual character of Dead Pigs. Although the material undoubtedly touches on social issues, the style of the piece is not that of intense drama but more that of a satire. There's an indication of that in the name given to the developers ('Golden Happiness Properties') while the pitch of the film is set by the light-weight music score and by the relaxed approach in the storytelling. The cast all do well throughout, but in the last third the tone that has been set so well waivers. Actual threats to Candy which involve cutting off her water and electricity take us into darker territory but these scenes don't really work either as drama or as black comedy. The failure to cohere is all the more evident when the last section of the film brings in songs and then tries very belatedly to turn the piece into a musical. But, if not all of it works, much of it does and Dead Pigs has an individuality that is welcome.

 

Footnote: Although only now being released here, Dead Pigs dates from 2018. Since then Cathy Yan has directed Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) but that being a film in a franchise, which she did not write, this remains her one fully personal feature to date.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Vivian Wu, Yang Haoyu, Mason Lee, Li Meng, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl.

 

Dir Cathy Yan, Pro Clarissa Zhang, Jane Zhang and Yang Lan, Screenplay Cathy Yan, Ph Federico Cesca, Pro Des Joe Yao, Ed Alexander Kopit, Music Andrew Orkin, Costumes Athena Wang.

 

Beijing Culture/SeesawProductions/Microcosmic Pictures-Mubi.
122 mins. China/USA. 2018. Rel: 12 February 2021. Available on Mubi. Cert. 15.