Director Cathy Yan of Birds of Prey fame actually made her first directorial debut in 2018 with Dead Pigs, a meditation on loneliness, class, and connection in modern-day Shanghai. Five characters from different backgrounds intersect and intertwine in the style of Love, Actually and Crazy Stupid Love, their stories coinciding with the resurfacing of 16,000 pig corpses in the Huangpu river.
This freak event, based on an incident that actually occurred in 2013 (which now comes off as a little eerie during a present marked by an animal-borne virus), does not really connect the characters as much as it acts as the catalyst. The real thread, rather, is the construction of the fictional Golden Happiness Corporation’s Sagrada Familia-themed residence project, an on-point representation of the tacky pseudo-European design sensibilities that Asian property developers have the tendency to emulate.
Only one house remains in the barren landscape designated as the project’s construction site—a dingzihu, or ‘nail house’, the colloquial term for homes owned by residents who refuse to accept money from developers to leave. Fierce and independent salon owner Candy (Vivian Wu) is adamant to keep her childhood home standing, but her brother, pig farmer Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), is desperate to push through with its demolition as he needs the compensation to pay back neighborhood loan sharks.
American Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), the master architect of the project, gets caught in this conflict between tradition and tomorrow, giving us the perspective of foreigners living in present-day China. Despite a year and a half of living in Facebook-less Shanghai, he can barely speak any Mandarin; meanwhile, house-proud pigeon-mom Candy is fluent in English after watching Cary Grant films at home. In what might be the most interesting part of the film, Landry embarks on a side hustle that pays him to appear at Shanghai events as an anonymous white guy; he becomes, in other words, a living stock photo that is both objectified and exploited to upscale Shanghainese business endeavors and act as entertainment for locals. (Zazie Beetz makes a delightful cameo as the fellow American who scouts him for this gig.)
Meanwhile, struggling waiter Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) makes a connection with bored, rich twenty-something Xia Xia (Meng Li) when he returns her phone after a messy night out. Their story is charming, if not a little cliché, and soon connects itself to the other characters in a small, subtle revelatory moment.
Dead Pigs definitely takes its time to come together, but it does finally get engaging once all the characters’ lives converge in the second act. What took me out of the experience, however, was the film’s bizarre ending, which was such a huge shift in tone that it felt a bit like a cop out. Despite this strange narrative decision, I watched the final scene feeling attached to each of the characters, who had also grown closer to one another as the film ultimately became a family movie.
The story (also written by Yan) left me a bit unsatisfied, but the ambition and technical skill present in Dead Pigs is still incredibly impressive considering this is Yan’s first film. Each scene, whether set in old, more rural Shanghai, or the modernized city center in all its futuristic, surreal, Ghost in the Shell glory, is beautifully, vibrantly shot. Yan’s cool, neo-noir direction spotlights Shanghai as a character all on its own, a welcome cinematic postcard considering that this is one of the cities that very rarely gets to grace mainstream screens.
Dead Pigs is now streaming worldwide on MUBI.