The thing that is immediately clear in Dead Pigs is voice. For her debut film, writer-director Cathy Yan emerges, if not fully formed, then supremely confident in her voice as a filmmaker and in her abilities to realize it through this medium. Anyone who has seen her spectacular follow-up Birds of Prey (I know some people have beef with that movie, but those people can take a long walk off a short pier. Birds of Prey kicks ungodly amounts of ass) will be able to instantly recognize the aesthetic links between the two films, even as one takes place in a daffy version of Gotham while the other has its feet planted firmly on the ground. And also sometimes in the river with a bunch of dead pigs.
Inspired by the 2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident, in which thousands of pigs were dumped into rivers feeding into Shanghai, Dead Pigs uses this crisis as the backdrop for a number of stories all simmering to boil around the same time.
Most directly related is buffoonish pig farmer Wang (Haoyu Yang) who gets conned out of all his savings just before a mysterious malady kills off his livestock and leaves him deeply in debt to some dangerous people. Meanwhile beauty parlor owner Candy (Vivian Wu) occupies the last house still standing in her old neighborhood, with the others having been purchased and demolished by a huge conglomerate. But Candy refuses to sell, stalling the corporation’s plans for a massive new development.
The main architect behind that development is Sean (David Rysdahl) an American adrift in China whose life takes an unusual turn when he gets approached by Angie (Zazie Beetz) with a strange job opportunity.
And in the city, a young waiter (Mason Lee) returns the cellphone of a rich party girl Xia Xia (Meng Li) after she is in a car accident, leading to a new relationship that will change both their lives.
A former journalist, Yan knows to approach a story from every angle. Dead Pigs takes its time establishing its various characters and teasing out the eventual connections between the threads. For all its patience, the film never feels like it’s running in place or playing too cutesy with its narrative structure (something that Birds of Prey, much as I love it, is somewhat guilty of in its first half).
And even as Yan takes her time bringing the pieces of her film together, there is a clear thematic link through the disparate elements. All the characters in the film, regardless of their nationality or gender or age, are desperately trying to present images of themselves that are happier, wealthier, better than they actually are, stacking up lies and delusions in the name of faking it until they make it. Whether it’s Wang inviting neighbors over to use his newly purchased VR system despite his crushing debt, or Candy clinging to a happy past rather than face an uncertain future, everyone here is trying to live beyond their means and outside of their actual circumstances.
The dead pigs, then, are the bill coming due on the reality these characters refuse to acknowledge. They are the indisputable truth refusing to be ignored any longer and forcing its way to the surface. Yan’s script and direction doesn’t villainize her characters for their craven impulses and deluded needs, but she lays them out bare and trusts her actors to locate the all-too human pains that drive their worst actions.
Of the major plots, Rysdahl’s doofy American architect feels the most superfluous to the overall film. It doesn’t help that Zazie Beetz is haunting the edges of the storyline, being her usual luminous self and making you wish that the film had more time for her. That’s the double-edged sword of having Zazie Beetz in your movie: She’ll make it better, because she’s Zazie Beetz, but also we’ll want more of her, because she’s Zazie Beetz.
As Wang, Haoyu Yang could easily come across as either utterly loathsome or so pathetic as to be unpleasant to spend time with. But Yang maintains a rumpled kind of dignity and a rascally sort of energy that keeps you rooting for the guy to figure his way out of the deep hole he not only finds himself in, but keeps making deeper.
Vivian Wu as Candy is a force of nature throughout. Not only are Candy’s various looks totally fabulous, but her contested home is an incredible piece of set design. There’s detail and character expressed in every inch of the house, making the character feel like an extension of the scenery and vice versa. Candy is hard-edged but vulnerable, closed off but sensitive, cool as can be but insecure and barely keeping it together, and Wu brings every corner of this woman to vivid life.
And Mason Lee and Meng Li make for a wonderful couple in their corner of the film, with an awkward chemistry that’s very appealing even as they are alternately behaving badly and facing up to past bad behavior.
Dead Pigs features bold splashes of color, entire scenes lit by radiant neon signs, and at least one musical number (with accompanying sing-along) subtitles. There’s a vibrant, “We’re-making-a-movie!” go-for-broke energy that’s common for first films but that never feels out of control in Yan’s hands. There’s a confidence that’s palpable in the feeling of control as Dead Pigs moves from one story to the next and begins steadily bringing itself into a singular focus.
Like she did with Birds of Prey, Yan showcases a willingness to play with tone, indulging in colorful good times while still being primed to pull a lever and send you plunging into pits of sorrow and discomfort.
I would say that Dead Pigs is a promise of great things to come, but Yan’s already put out her second film, and, yeah, it was pretty dang great! That just makes it easier to appreciate that Yan came out of the gate, if not totally fully formed, then with a voice and style that is all her own.
Here’s looking forward to whatever she has to say next.
Dead Pigs is available through MUBI.