After picking up festival awards at Sundance, Seattle, Philadelphia and Dallas, Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs is making its Toronto premiere at the 2018 Reel Asian International Film Festival. Based on the true events of the 2013 Huangpu River incident, in which thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating down the river, Yan’s film follows a large cast of characters as they struggle to find a place in a rapidly developing, and increasingly global, Chinese economy. (If that sounds vaguely like the setup of a random Jia Zhangke joint, well, he’s the executive producer on this film.) Yan mines the incident for all of its metaphoric and symbolic value, often charting the most obvious course through her sometimes convoluted narrative, but the resulting tapestry is nevertheless rich and engaging.
Dead Pigs stars Vivian Wu as Candy Wang, a business owner who refuses to leave her family home, which a real estate development firm is attempting to purchase for a new project. This story is the focal point around which the rest of the narrative is built. The film also follows Candy’s brother, Old Wang (Yang Haoyu), a pig farmer who struggles with debt and becomes desperate after he’s swindled by scam investments and his pigs suddenly and mysteriously die. The film also follows Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, who played Foo in Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Old Wang’s son, who pretends to be rich and successful while working as a waiter at a restaurant; there, he falls in love with Xia Xia (Li Meng, who has a pretty good agent to get her in compelling films like this and Jia’s A Touch of Sin and even Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night). The film ALSO follows a Western architect, Sean Landry (David Rysdal), who works for the firm attempting to purchase Candy Wang’s property. And breathe.
The film opens and finishes strong. Yan’s visual sensibilities have been impressively formed over a small number of short film credits; her use of wide frames, of light and color—from scenes in bars and clubs, to dark houses and bright, rainy neon streets—and the slow and deliberate movements of her camera, combine to create a gentle, flowing visual rhythm that smoothly guides the viewer from one plot thread to the next. The night scenes in particular showcase the vivid, colorful sensibilities that may have helped land her the gig directing Birds of Prey for Warner Bros. in 2020. The first and final thirty minutes contain Yan’s strongest stylistic work overall.
The film’s middle hour, however, can be a trying stretch. The characters are all interconnected, as outlined above, but even the familial relationships, such as Wang Zhen being Old Wang’s son, are unnecessarily hidden or withheld for a long time, revealed like small plot twists or surprises. And the coincidences and contrivances that bring many of these characters together are the weakest aspect of the film, largely incidental to the overall narrative. The groundwork for this is set early on, when Xia Xia sits with a friend at a bar and listens to her talk about her new boyfriend, or sugar daddy, who is promptly revealed to be Xia Xia’s father. The plot continually grinds its way through such interactions, with Yan spending too much time juggling all of these plot threads, and keeping many of them up in the air for too long.
Some of these plot threads are more successful than others. The main story that concerns Candy and her feud with the developers treads familiar ground, but exceptionally strong work from the actors keeps it afloat. The story about Landry, meanwhile, contains some of the most compelling insight into the political aesthetics of modern China. As he struggles with his own self-worth, a Westerner who cannot speak a word of Mandarin and fights daily for recognition and respect, he’s approached by a recruiter (Zazie Beetz, in a brief but wonderful cameo) who offers him paydays for “modeling” Western businessmen, playing the role of wealthy developers or investors at media events promoting Chinese corporate success. Image is everything.
The performances throughout the film are solid, and no doubt Yan’s ability to balance tone and guide a large cast towards such consistently good work was yet another skill making her attractive to the Warner suits. Not to routinely bring this review back around to the upcoming Birds of Prey, but being the first Asian woman to direct one of those superhero tentpole films is worth celebrating. And despite the sometimes creaky and clunky plot machinations, and even more clunky symbolism, Yan’s strong sense of style and collaborative work with her cast results in a captivating portrait of modern life at various levels of Chinese society, from the rich and poor, to locals and expats.
For a multi-character drama with so many plot threads, the ending feels a little too tidy at first glance. The action concludes on a divisive note, a stylistic choice I’ve heard some call preposterous and others fully embrace. My feelings on the scene are a little more ambivalent, but what I did appreciate is the sad and cyclical undercurrent that permeates the ending, complicating the tidy appearances, which is punctuated by a wonderful visual gag over the closing credits. Things change, people grow, progress marches onward, but there’s just a hint that the passage of time may also be a prison, that the rapid advances of China’s massive economy promises the future but offers only an eternal return of suffering and struggle. Cathy Yan’s debut is bristling with ideas, and not all of them are fully developed or stick the landing, but that final shot is a subtle and sly knockout.
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