Two years after its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, Cathy Yan’s ambitious debut is finally available to stream around the world via MUBI.
After Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan went on to helm last year’s colourful Birds of Prey, which ended up getting a wide release first. Within the fist fifteen minutes of Dead Pigs, it’s easy to see the DNA that led the young director to work on Birds of Prey, a film that grossed over $200 million worldwide. The frenetic energy and anarchic spirit of the superhero film can be found here as Yan weaves a range of intertwined plot threads together. She displays a neon-soaked, candy-coated exterior that exposes a much more sinister underbelly rotting away.
The film is inspired by an incident that occurred in 2013, when more than 16,000 dead pigs were found floating on the Huangpu—the river flowing through Shanghai. That incident is what forms the basis for this character study; the film uses the image of these dead pigs floating down the river as a way into the worlds of five different individuals. We follow their struggling lives as they are poised to intersect. These include widowed Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), a pig farmer, and his estranged sister, Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), who serves as the moral centre of the film. The film isn’t explicit about how all these people connect; they all come from differing social classes and backgrounds. It isn’t until their stories begin to overlap near the end, where the narrative strings are tied together.
The characters serve as an extended metaphor, each representing a version of China at the crossroads of modernity. They all deal with the processes of globalisation in their own ways as the film satirises a range of things including Shangai’s recent embracing of Western aesthetics. Yan brilliantly observes the necessity of individualism and collectivism in such thoughtful ways. Lost people search for connection and meaning in a society more concerned with the rotting pigs poisoning the water than they are with the moral rot that allowed it to happen in the first place.
One thing Yan definitely doesn’t lack in her first outing is confidence. Her attempts to engage a multitude of big themes are admirable. There’s a moment in here that feels like a full bodied version of the ‘Wise Up’ scene from Magnolia. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson, she employs the wild ensemble energy that can be found in an Altman film. Also on display is a visual finesse in Federico Cesca’s stunning photography. Somehow the budget seems much bigger than it actually is. There’s a nice juxtaposition between the brightly coloured and busy cityscapes and the more quiet, contemplative rural moments. A scene of farmers sitting around a somewhat dilapidated farmhouse while skiing on VR headsets was particularly well imagined.
The film has plenty of poignant moments like this, but beneath that and its neon candy exterior, it lacks consistency. As with most films that focus on multiple storylines, they are each fighting for control for your attention, and thus pacing is all over the place. The separate narrative strands come together at the end, but until then it’s difficult to follow and it all feels too disjointed. With how overlong some of the pieces are, it doesn’t seem that Dead Pigs is especially interested in a neatly constructed and coherent story. While affecting, it never gives in too much to obvious sentiment, or at least the performances don’t allow for it.
There’s no real explosive payoffs, answers or revelations at the end despite the characters entering each other’s orbits. The small subtlety of the relationships keeps you going, and as the plot progresses you can’t help but compare these characters to the bigger picture. The way this imagery of death and pollution contrasts the struggle for life and meaning is the product of astute observation and creative poetry weaved together. Despite the heavy themes, this is a fun ride. Yan is certainly interested in the duelling themes of classicism and modernity.
For a first time filmmaker, the feats Yan pulls off are interesting and quite astonishing. Yet during the singular narrative moments, it bites more off than it can chew. It feels like something that would be much more rewarding on a second viewing. There’s a satisfaction, though, in the fact we’re already aware she has gone on to refine her style for a completely different film and audience. Having taken a break from tentpoles for her next feature, it will be fascinating to see if she can produce a more polished version of this.
Dead Pigs is streaming now on MUBI.
Words by Warren Bradley
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