Wild land development and the fast changing of social and physical landscape of China has been for a long time the subject of choice of many Chinese social realism indie movies. It is indeed a hot topic and it is where the big economic divide becomes truly evident.
First time director Cathy Yan, who grew up in US, has found a lighter way to dish out the same old stew (… or is it the same old stew?) with “Dead Pigs”, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is produced by Jia Zhangke, a man who knows a thing or two about Chinese fast-paced development. The film is lightly based on an incident that occurred in 2013, when more than 16,000 dead pigs were found floating on the Huangpu, the river flowing through Shanghai.
Shanghai is a modern and glitzy megalopolis in constant expansion, but just at the margins of the urban sprawl, lays a very different landscape, made of a mix of countryside villages, pig farms and menacing bulldozers at work. Pig farmer Wang (Yang Haoyu) has a modest business and has invested all his savings in a scheme that he thinks will make him a wealthy home-owner. He also relies on his son Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) who is – or so he says to his dad – a businessman in the big city. Not surprisingly, the scheme is a scam and Old Wang ends up owning only a big debt to a gangster and few pigs that, to make things worst, are mysteriously dying. An easy solution to his problems could be selling the family house that is the last standing bastion in the middle of a land already destined to become a luxurious Sagrada-Familia-shaped condo. But things are not so simple, as Wang’s sister, the successful beautician entrepreneur Candy Wang (Vivian Vu), has no intention to sell to the developers the beloved family home where she still lives.
Meanwhile in the city, we discover that Zhen has been lying all along, because in reality he works as a busboy in a suckling pig restaurant where crazy rich clients bully him showing off their money. One of these rich bored (and boring) kids is Xia Xia (Li Meng) who, driving home drunk one night, strikes a fruit stand and ends up in hospital (after paralyzing for life the fruit seller). This accident somehow brings together Xia Xia and Zhang and a tender friendship will result. At the same time, Sean (David Rysdahl), a spaced-out American architect, is in charge of the Sagrada-Familia brutalist operation and struggles with his lack of self confidence but he proves good at talking with people like Candy.
“Dead Pigs” proceeds in an episodic mode, jumping from a character to the next one and some threads are definitely more entertaining and better developed than others. Candy Wang’s sentimental “Don-Quixote-sque” stance is maybe the strongest one and is very likable. About Xia Xia & Zhang’s romantic story and Sean’s turmoils, I personally couldn’t care less and the movie didn’t help me much to empathize.
Like the narrative that is split in threads, also the characters end up feeling quite one-dimensional. Similarly that in a comedy of masks, every character represents a trait; there is the ignorant farmer, the stubborn woman, the rich girl, the poor son of the farmer, the displaced foreigner and so on, but nobody moves much from the position on the chessboard of the movie. They eventually come together physically for an impromptu sing along (sigh!) but they don’t really “come together” in a narrative way. This is maybe the reason why I felt the whole work wasn’t very assertive and I struggled to understand what is really the position the film takes or where it stands when facing the land development issues.
Moreover, I was taken aback by the shallow way in which the consequences of the drunken car accident were handled and the lightness in placing it in the plot. I confess this is very personal as I’ve lost a friend in that way; however, in my opinion it had no reason to be there and had no such cathartic or sarcastic effect to justify its inclusion in the plot.
I must admit for the sake of honesty that I didn’t like this movie, for all the above reasons, but I want to highlight also some positive aspects. In general, “Dead Pigs” has a frivolous touch that sometimes is needed to face big issues and has a refreshing way to show that things are never just black or white and, most important, that sometimes we need to let go. It also depicts a multi-flavored and multilayered humanity inhabiting these Chinese mega-cities that is not often seen and the director’s beautiful and balanced sense of composition adds quality to it.
Tech credits are all good, crisp photography, creative costumes and some of the settings are truly original; Candy’s frumpy house in that bizarre shade of turquoise in the middle of a barren building site is indeed decidedly poetic. As a first feature “Dead Pigs” is a very good product, so good that director Cathy Yan has been pointed to direct the new DC Entertainment superhero film about “Suicide Squad”’s spin-off character Harley Quinn.