There’s something rotten around here and it may not be the swine
Dead Pigs is about dead pigs but also not so much about dead pigs. Sure, there are dead pigs in it, but that isn’t the stench Cathy Yan is concerned with. The ongoing modernisation of China and the growing divide between the old and new is the smell Yan wants to waft up our nostrils in a drama comedy set in Shanghai. You may recognise Yan’s name as the future director of the Harley Quinn shoot-off, Birds of Prey, although her debut film couldn’t be more different.
The Golden Happiness Project, a new, monstrously sized property development, serves as the crossover point for multiple story threads to slowly merge into one. All of the land and buildings the developers need to start construction has been secured and demolished bar one lone house owned by Candy Wang (Vivian Wu). She is a defiant owner of a nearby beauty salon who refuses to cower in the face of huge offers to buy her old family home. Odd-fit American architect Sean (David Rysdahl) is overseeing the project and tries his best to convince her to sell up, but nothing legal seems to work.
Her pig farmer brother (played by Haoyu Yang, referred to only as Old Wang) is eager for her to sell so he can get his hands on his share of the profits and pay off the gangsters he is dangerously in debt to. His son, Wang Zhen, (Mason Lee – Ang Lee’s son) works as a waiter in the city but tells his father he’s a high flying financial investor. He spends his nights serving the likes of Xia Xia (Meng Li), a young spoilt rich girl who is growing tired of the hollow party lifestyle she and her friends lead.
For days on end hundreds of pigs have been found floating in the city river and the mystery deepens as to who and what is killing the swine. Yan interlocks these human stories with a light touch and uses humour over drama to set the tone. This has mostly mixed results and in contrast to Yan’s complaints that today’s China is losing its soul and creating a false artifice, it proves just as difficult to find a meaningful route beyond the surface of her archetypal characters. In all Yan is juggling five different perspectives and their individual narratives never combine to make a meaningful whole.
Where Candy and her brother are an older generation clinging onto traditions of yesteryear, the younger people represent a sense of loss in a contemporary society that has all the trappings of the West including its draining capitalist side effects. Zazie Beetz also makes a couple of surprise and brief appearances as a talent scout for a model agency, although again, it’s another subplot that doesn’t add up to much.
The ideas in Yan’s film are rich and certainly hold meaning in relation to China today. Huge property developments are rapidly being built across the country with many left standing empty, as the government looks to modernise the country while vast swathes of rural communities which once provided the backbone for its ‘old economy’ are cut adrift. But the threads needed to connect this collection of stories aren’t tied together with conviction, and the overarching themes suffer as a result. The dead pig metaphor also remains largely elusive, although the general lack of wealth and prosperity we see may hold the key to that.
There are still tickets available to watch Dead Pigs at this year’s London Film Festival and you can buy them on the BFI website.
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