Before she presented the enjoyably mixed bag that was Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), director Cathy Yan unveiled a decidedly different beast in Dead Pigs. Her debut feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2018 and is only just now reaching screens, presumably due to the vagaries of international cinema distribution. It was worth the wait.
On the outskirts of Shanghai, a mammoth housing project is being planned, designed to showcase apartment buildings constructed around a life-size replica of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família. The site has been cleared, with the exception of beautician Candy Wang (Vivian Wu, the film’s most valuable player) who steadfastly refuses to leave her home – now a solitary dwelling in a spectacularly desolate field of shattered masonry and tiles. As she rebuffs the financial overtures of the sinisterly-named Golden Happiness Properties, her family faces their own tribulations as they attempt to grab their own piece of China’s booming economy. There’s also the indelicate matter of all the pigs in the surrounding countryside mysteriously dying.
The feature is far richer and more intricate than its initial setup might suggest. Its narrative unfolds as a series of interconnecting stories – although some of these feel as though they’re dragging their feet. The sections that follow the exploits of the waiter, Wang Zheng (Mason Lee), are perhaps too tentative, with the subdued manner of this thread making an emotional connection difficult. While it’s the least interesting plotline, it’s certainly not dull, and it’s never long before attention shifts to one of the other characters.
Yan handles her weighty themes with a light touch, underpinned by strategic lashings of dark comedy and a hint of surrealism. The resolution – when it comes – is most satisfactory in a forthright sort of way as the filmmaker opts to restrain the story from veering into irritating sentimentality. Dead Pigs is a wonderfully self-assured picture, with a shrewdly gentle tone that mostly works, and very much hits the spot.
Dead Pigs is released digitally on demand on 12th February 2021.
Watch the trailer for Dead Pigs here: