For many, director Cathy Yan burst onto the scene with 2020’s splashy and sensational Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. However, Yan’s feature directorial debut came in 2018 with the quirky satire, Dead Pigs. If you loved Birds of Prey, you’ll relish the film that paved the way.
Inspired by real events, Yan’s time as a reporter in Shanghai, Dead Pigs unfurls a sprawling story of family, identity, money woes, class conflict, and dead pigs. In 2013, thousands of spoiled swine mysteriously surfaced in the Huangpu River. This curious incident plays as the backdrop to Yan’s ensemble dramedy, which is more about how capitalism can twist our souls.
Yan’s screenplay begins with a pig farmer known as Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), who has a humble life, wealthy tastes, and a mounting debt to local gangsters. When his pigs die without warning, he’s fumbling to sell them off to make cash. He turns to his sister, Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), a successful beautician, who lives in a candy-colored home in the middle of a field of trash and rubble. She’s the last holdout in a land buy from the aggressive corporation, Golden Happiness Properties. They’re offering her a fortune for the lot on which her family home sits, but to her it is priceless. This is where she and her brother were raised. This is where she has preserved her family’s trinkets and treasures. This is where her prize-winning homing pigeons know to return. So, whether it’s her caterwauling brother in need of more money or an American architect (David Rysdahl) with a beguilingly wide-eyed sales pitch, she will not be swayed.
Meanwhile, Old Wang’s son Zhen (Mason Lee) is living it up in the big city. Well, that’s what his dad thinks, having been fed stories of a fancy job, a house renovation, and a shiny car. In reality, Zhen is scraping by as a waiter, who is often the whipping boy to any rich asshole flaunting tip money. This is how he meets Xia Xia (Meng Li), an affluent socialite who wants for nothing—except a sincere human connection. Everything in her life is about her father’s money, be it buying her friends or paying her way out of trouble. So, when she meets a sweet boy with a bicycle and an appreciation for dumplings and Step Up, she feels truly fortunate.
How do all these stories intertwine? In ways wobbly and wonderous while ultimately looping back to the dead pigs in the river. As with Birds of Prey, Dead Pigs leaps from one character’s arc to another with a confident verve. Even without the big budget of the DCEU, Yan impresses with a production design that boasts style and substance. She uses color to distinctly paint the very different worlds of her haves and have-nots. In a reflective jacket that Harley Quinn might snatch, Xia Xia is a modern princess in a high-rise tower, smoking sadly above a neon nightscape of bisexual lighting. It’s a picture-perfect place, but also cold. Zhen moves within this world, his dull uniform doesn’t allow him to dazzle within it.
Meanwhile, Old Wang lurks in locales thick with shadows and grime. When he is in the reach of the bright lights of shop windows, they bring to light how shabby his clothing is and how faux his leather accessories. By contrast, Candy’s wardrobe is oft impeccable, whether she’s swanning around her bustling salon or working out in her home. She favors bright colors, and her house stands as a pretty pastel rebellion to the beige ruins that stretch around it in all directions. Every stitch of fabric and inch of set dressing speaks to Yan’s bold sense of visual storytelling, which would be exploded in the best possible spectacle in Birds of Prey.
Yet what might be most thrilling about Dead Pigs is how it refuses to make excuses for its motley crew of characters. In this collision of misadventures, we watch them gamble with wealth and health, escape the consequences of serious mayhem, swindle, say horrid things, and keep awful secrets. Yan allows them to be messy humans, as she would Harley and her crew. She trusts in the humanity and intelligence of her audience, relishing in the stories of people who are fascinating not despite their flaws but because of them. Yan so exquisitely paints the worlds and pain of these people that we are with them in every step. We might cringe as they make a horrid misstep, because but for the grace of God go us too? Sure, you might think you know how you’d handle a crisis. But then a bunch of dead pigs inexplicably surface and you’re stuck with the stink and the gaping uncertainty of what now.
Most miraculously, Yan weaves all these weird yet lovely threads into a finale that is chaotic, climactic, and thrilling all while winkingly condemning the Hollywood demand of a happy ending. After all, what can happiness be when it’s been branded by a soulless corporation? In the end, Dead Pigs delivers a story that is thought-provoking, decadently stylish, sprightly poignant, and joltingly funny.
Dead Pigs is now on MUBI
Header Image Source: MUBI