Clearly an ambitious first feature, and it mostly hits the right spots in this ‘Magnolia’-inspired ensemble drama about China at the crossroads of modernity.
Dir. Cathy Yan
2018 | China | Drama | 130 mins | Mandarin
PG13 (passed clean) for some coarse language
Cast: Vivian Wu, Yang Haoyu, Li Meng, Mason Lee, David Dysdahl, Zazie Beetz
Plot: A bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an expat architect and a disenchanted rich girl converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting – World Cinema Dramatic (Sundance)
International Sales: Media Asia
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2019)
Cathy Yan’s first feature is clearly an ambitious one, and for the most part, it just about holds everything together to make a case for success, even if it threatens to implode from its indulgence in over-dramatisation.
The film works because of its strong characterisations rather than plotting, though its premise suggests something intriguing: people have been dumping thousands of dead pigs into the local river after they inexplicably die.
What Yan has done is to weave an assortment of folks into the tapestry of a modernising Shanghai with the dead pigs as fodder for media to jostle for societal and national attention. Apart from a pig farmer with sheer bad luck, we meet a strong-headed salon owner, an affectionate waiter, a spoilt rich girl and an expat architect trying to figure out Chinese businessmen.
The main cast give top-notch work, and in fact deservedly won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. The characters collide as their narrative threads intermingle in both predictable and unexpected ways, drawing out the relationships and dramatising them for effect.
The movie that popped right out of my head whilst I was watching Dead Pigs was P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), and without saying anything more, Yan’s film surprises from time to time, especially in its climax.
It is obvious, at least from a quick glance of the poster for Dead Pigs, that the pigs here while culinarily representing possibly the Chinese’s favourite meat, also function symbolically as ‘piggy banks’ (or in the context of the narrative here, ‘pig’ [derogatory] and ‘river banks’). These terms suggest deeper underlying issues of greed, lack of compassion and humanity in a ‘pig-eat-pig’ world.
Yan also manages to explore other themes of family, interpersonal connection, and the commodification of human existence. While China continues to be at the crossroads of modernity, and figuring out its collective future, Yan here suggests that the present rate of rapid development and instances of unchecked power may have come at a cost for people in the lower strata.
While not exactly an out-and-out social realist film, Dead Pigs does well to capture sociopolitical issues at the personal level. It’s a decent debut and you wouldn’t believe that Yan’s stock has risen so quickly that she is now filming a Harley Quinn DC movie with Margot Robbie for Warner Brothers.