Vivian Wu as salon owner Candy WangTWITTER/DR_H_BUS

Dead Pigs is hardly an ambiguous title. It is not a metaphor: this is indeed a film involving many dead pigs. Although the eponymous four-legged friends are the centerpiece of this film, they are also in some ways merely an irrelevance in a film which is really about people, their means of getting by, and the physical spaces and social systems they inhabit.

The debut feature of former journalist Cathy Yan, this comi-drama offers up a playful yet shrewd commentary on life in modern China. Set in and around Shanghai, it follows one family torn apart then reunited through the modernising effort of private development companies. Yan navigates all levels of Shanghai’s diverse demographic spectrum, cleverly interweaving narratives to form perceptive social commentary.

Haoyu Yang as farmer Old WangTWITTER/BENJYBOX

It opens as Old Wang, a rural pig farmer captivated by a VR demo, hastily takes out a loan to purchase a headset. He is brought back down to Earth by the discovery that one of his pigs has dropped dead, seemingly out-of-nowhere, and is forced to ditch it in the river. One dead pig becomes many, and Wang is not the only one disposing of livestock this way. A disease has spread throughout the region, and the river becomes flooded with pig carcasses, threatening to poison the water supply.

The film references a real life event. In 2013, a porcine disease epidemic in the area surrounding Shanghai became the subject of national media scrutiny, as a sea of dead pigs appeared floating along the city’s river. Yan’s journalistic lens shines through as she takes real incidents and builds a playful fiction around them.

"We also meet Xia Xia: a disillusioned, rich-kid, party-girl, bored of her vacuous life."TWITTER/PAJIBA

In the inner city, we also meet Xia Xia: a disillusioned, rich-kid, party-girl, bored of her vacuous life. When she encounters Wang Xhen, a struggling waiter, the classic rich-meets-poor love story ensues. This subplot was definitely one of the weaker ones, relying on a rather tired, class defying, love-against-all-odds trope. This was not helped by an (at times) unconvincing performance from Mason Lee, and the somewhat grating and predictable characterisation of Xia Xia. Their performances certainly weren’t total failures, but didn’t really stand up against the very natural and emotive ones of Old Wang and his sister Candy, whom we’ll get to soon.

“[The pigs] are merely an irrelevance in a film which is really about people, their means of getting by, and the physical spaces and social systems they inhabit.”

However, this plot line does serve as an effective tool for contrasting the gross economic disparities in China, highlighting how a select few lead immensely privileged lifestyles whilst the rest of the population struggle, left behind by a society modernising at breakneck speed.

Wang Xhen, we discover, is Old Wang’s son, who has moved to Shanghai to make something of himself. Despite telling his father he has secured a high paying job in the city, he is, in fact, working as a waiter in a suckling pig restaurant. When his work shuts due to the pigs in the river, he, like his father, falls on desperate times, purposefully crashing into cars on his bike in the hope of receiving cash compensation.

"And then there is Candy Wang – Old Wang’s sister – an ultra-enthusiastic and energetic salon owner."TWITTER/BENJIBOX

And then there is Candy Wang — Old Wang’s sister — an ultra-enthusiastic and energetic salon owner, whizzing around her salon and returning to her bright blue house which stands alone in the midst of a plain of rubble — a former town destroyed to make space for a new development. Candy is being pressured from all angles to sell her property. There is a poignant, lingering shot of Candy’s house, standing defiant in the ruins of the community which once surrounded it. Cut to the aggressive commercial of the ’Golden Happiness Group’ – a property development company:

“China is the future. And the future is now. Golden Happiness Properties. Building a new, modern China where the world comes to us. Introducing an exciting new complex of 578 state-of-the-art apartments, surrounding a full-scale replica of the famous Spanish cathedral, The Sagrada Familia… ”

"Candy’s home is an example of a ‘nail house’"TWITTER/BELAVALLADARES

Candy’s home is an example of a "nail house", whereby one remaining homeowner stands defiant and is offered massive financial incentives to give way. When these prove unsuccessful, as in Candy’s case, housing developers will resort to more severe tactics. The Golden Happiness group have brought in awkward American architect, Sean, absurdly celebrated by the company for his every move with over-the-top dance displays and rounds of applause. He and his project seem symbolic of the welcoming of Western capitalist influence into China. Sean himself, a bit baffled by his purpose, ultimately proves his worth by convincing Old Wang and Candy of the need to sell.

Candy is ultimately left without power and water, shouting from the top of her roof, clad in fluffy slippers and dressing gown, as the diggers advance towards her. The vivid colour palette and kitsch aesthetics help Yan to achieve her comic effect despite depicting fraught events in which her characters are clearly distressed. This isn’t done with cruel, schadenfreude-esque aims, but instead to show how real life can descend into farce as emotions become more and more charged.

“The vivid colour palette and kitsch aesthetics help Yan to achieve her comic effect despite depicting fraught events in which her characters are clearly distressed.”

The plot is generally very well developed but loses momentum, falling into a somewhat predictable denouement. Old Wang saves the day by begging her on his knees to come down; the bonds of family are restored and the film ends with a rousing ensemble sing-song. Is this a lapse in style and break in an otherwise well put together narrative, or is it an intentionally ironic, propaganda-esque display of unity? The overall message is somewhat unclear. The family is reunited after ultimately succumbing to the forces which threatened to tear it apart. The essential takeaway seems a reflection on a constant tug of war in China: between socialist values and capitalist influence; between a respect for tradition and community and a ruthless drive towards progress. The ending points to progress as the clear winner. All in all — albeit not a perfect film — it is certainly an enjoyable, aesthetically pleasing watch, and a promising directorial debut.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Asian Female Robots on Screen: Subservience and Eroticisation