'Dead Pigs': Film Review | Sundance 2018
Cathy Yan’s directorial debut is a dark comedy about the conflicting social norms shaping contemporary China, premiering in the festival's World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
Apparently what unites urban Chinese residents isn’t the by-now stereotypical quest for wealth, or even upholding socialist ideals — it’s pork, or at least that’s how Dead Pigs frames the situation for a group of Shanghai-area residents caught up in a series of outlandish porcine-related events.
Cathy Yan’s first feature is a dark, quirky comedy that peels back the layers of contemporary Mainland mores and reveals a group of people almost completely deracinated by their quest to get ahead in a society buffeted by rapidly shifting cultural expectations. Genially offbeat and broadly relatable, Dead Pigs presents the tantalizing potential to successfully appeal to both domestic and international audiences.
Yan’s yarn begins in the vicinity of China’s largest and most progressive urban area, where business has been pretty good lately for widowed Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), a pig farmer who’s enthusiastically investing his profits in China’s booming stock market. Meanwhile his estranged sister Candy Wang (Vivian Wu) is profitably catering to well-off single women with a hair salon that provides self-help guidance along with the usual styling services. On the home front though, she’s fighting a pitched battle as mega-real estate corporation Golden Happiness Properties attempts to evict her from the longtime Wang family home, the last remaining structure on a lot outside Shanghai slated for a major new development.
Partnering with Golden Happiness, American expat Sean Landry (David Rysdahl) has landed the assignment to design the project as chief architect, although his actual professional credentials may be somewhat sketchy. As long as nobody asks too many questions he should be fine though. Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) is definitely not OK, however. The only son of Old Wang, he’s fled the hog farm for the city to escape his kooky dad, lying about being a big-shot businessman while working as a waiter in a roast piglet restaurant. That’s where he meets frequent diner Xia Xia (Meng Li), the spoiled child of a rich businessman who believes that caring for his daughter means showering her with wealth.
Like some classic American indie film, these five lives are poised to collide, but what could possibly bring them all together? Pig carcasses, as it turns out. When Old Wang’s hogs suddenly start dying without any explanation and later thousands of dead swine inexplicably turn up in the waterways drifting down toward Shanghai harbor, triggering an environmental and public health crisis, a day of reckoning can’t be far off.
Bearing the endorsement of Chinese indie film icon Jia Zhangke, who serves as executive producer, Yan’s film mines several prominent social issues to contextualize the improbable plot, including socioeconomic mobility, environmental degradation and market speculation. Rather than just documenting their prevalence, she demonstrates how they coalesce to create a conflicting array of impacts for her characters.
Despite his free-spending ways, Old Wang isn’t really a rich man, so when his stockbroker disappears with his investment stake and the loan shark’s debt comes due while his pigs are dying en masse, he’s forced to reevaluate his options. His solution of selling the family home clashes with Candy’s sentimental determination to avoid giving it up at any cost, even if it means watching her brother go bankrupt, or worse. Sean, meanwhile, sees his plans to become an influential business tycoon derailed once he acknowledges his feelings for Candy, complicating Golden Happiness’ development plans, which require her eviction.
The budding romance between Wang Zhen and Xia Xia registers as somewhat underdeveloped in comparison to the high-stakes real estate tussle, but makes a worthwhile contribution by suggesting a more flexible view toward class differences than the older generation tolerates. At 130 minutes' running time, however, some judicious reevaluation of extraneous material throughout the film is probably warranted.
Wu (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) provides the film’s wobbly moral center as Candy Wang, passionately protecting her decrepit, picturesque home against opponents both internal and external. Wu’s sassy, energetic performance reveals Candy’s determination to safeguard her family’s legacy while offering a gesture of defiance against the rampant greed she seems to encounter everywhere (although as a business operator she’s happy to benefit from it.)
Taiwanese-American actor Lee (son of director Ang Lee) earnestly fills the role of Old Wang’s dutiful son, whose charade of achieving status and success has the desperate appearance of a social climber favoring fake designer wear. That puts him in the same league as Rysdahl’s equivocating Sean, who’s bluffing his way through the Golden Happiness deal in hopes that success will obscure his less than stellar professional qualifications.
It’s fair to say, though, that the conflicts among these characters are ultimately resolved in a most surprising and delightful manner, leaving the larger social issues to gradually play out for millions of others chasing the Chinese Dream.
Production companies: Microcosmic Pictures, Media Asia Zexin Films, Beijing Jingxi Culture
Cast: Vivian Wu, Mason Lee, Haoyu Yang, Meng Li, David Rysdahl
Director-writer: Cathy Yan
Producers: Clarissa Zhang, Jane Zheng, Yang Lan
Executive producer: Jia Zhangke
Director of photography: Federico Cesca
Production designer: Joe Yao
Costume designer: Athena Wang
Editor: Alexander Kopit
Music: Andrew Orkin
Casting director: Miao Liang
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)