DEAD PIGS is a little movie that premiered at Sundance in 2018, and didn’t come to home video in the U.S. until a few years later, but I knew about it because it’s the feature debut of director Cathy Yan, and got her the job of directing BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN).
Yan is American, born in China, raised in Virginia, went to high school in Hong Kong, then went to Princeton and a couple other American schools. Before she started making short films she was a reporter for the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal working out of New York, Hong Kong, and Beijing. With a background like that it makes sense that her debut would be a truly international movie: American producers, Chinese financiers, presented by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE), filmed in Shanghai with a bilingual crew, with mostly Mandarin dialogue but also some English, post production done in New York.
It takes place in Shanghai, following the lives of five main characters who we will later find out are connected, or will intersect. But first it’s kind of like a series of vignettes about people from different walks of life, dealing with a changing world.
The one most closely associated with the title is Old Wang (Haoyu Yang, THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA), a pig farmer facing serious financial troubles. He doesn’t realize that at the beginning, or he’s in denial; we first meet him hogging the demonstration VR goggles at an electronics store, and then buying them. Next he goes to the mahjong parlor and brags about it. No, not a gift from his very successful son, he says. He bought them for himself. He’s an investor now. But it turns out he invested in a scam, and then he finds one of his pigs dead from a mysterious sickness. Bad luck.
He’s this funny old guy always wearing a goofy leather hat with earflaps (usually folded up), and he’s obsessed with virtual reality, mostly as a status symbol. He gathers all the other elders in the community to take turns with the goggles. Then the loan sharks show up. Without having meat to sell, and having spent his savings on the scam and the goggles, he doesn’t have what he owes them.
There’s a very sad scene where he goes to an outdoor market and pathetically tries to sell the pig that died, claiming it’s fresh. No one falls for it. He keeps a friendly smile the whole time, trying to mask his desperation. Later, as more of his pigs die, he starts secretly dumping them off a bridge at night.
Another character is “Madam Boss” Miss Candy Wang (Vivian Wu, THE GUYVER), owner of a beauty salon. She doesn’t seem to style hair or anything, she just comes in to lead her staff in chants of “You are talented! You are unique! You will succeed!” Then she drives home to feed her pigeons (each have names), paint pictures of her fluffy dogs, paint, put up string lights, and ignore the suits who keep showing up trying to buy her house. I didn’t catch their names while watching so it took me a while to piece together that her and Old Wang are siblings, with great tension between them because he needs money and she refuses to sell the house they grew up in, that’s rightfully part his.
We also follow white American nerd Sean Landry (David Rysdahl, NINE DAYS), who’s living here and working with Golden Happiness Properties (“Building a new, modern China, where the world comes to us”) to build luxury apartments “surrounding a full-scale replica of the famous Spanish cathedral, the Sagrada Familia.” Of course, they first have to figure out what to do about this one crazy pigeon lady pulling an UP, refusing to sell her property that’s right in the middle of the site.
The company treats Sean like a VIP, but he seems pretty out of his element, the only person who needs a translator, always listening to motivational tapes in his free time, running into old friends who imply he fled some kind of failure back home and is kind of a phony. He’s pretty clueless, but means well. When the executives are panicking about Candy’s refusal to sell (a video of her cursing out their lawyers has made her an online folk hero), he offers to go talk to her. Seems to think he can just be straight up with her and change her mind.
If I hadn’t looked up the cast in the middle of the movie I would’ve choked when Zazie Beetz showed up. I love her from Atlanta and she’s generally great in anything she shows up in (GEOSTORM, DEADPOOL 2, JOKER, THE HARDER THEY FALL, BULLET TRAIN) but I wouldn’t have expected her here. Admittedly the part is too small for her to do much with, but it’s a funny idea: she’s an agent who spots Sean at an outdoor cafe and recruits him for a modeling agency where they hire him out to pretend to be very important American CEOs at ribbon cuttings and stuff. I think the idea is that it’s not that much different from his role in the company he actually works for, so he’s trying to do something to earn his keep there, or prove to himself he has value.
The movie also follows a young waiter, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, THE HANGOVER PART II, LUCY, LIMBO), first seen carrying a roasted… well, dead pig to a table, where he notices Xia Xia (Meng Li, THE GUILLOTINES), a woman looking at a phone with a gaudy, bejeweled case, which he later finds she left at the table. While he rides his bike to his humble home she’s with a friend drinking wine at a bar with gogo dancers in Daft Punk masks. When her friend introduces her to the sugar daddy she’s been droning on about Xia Xia gets upset and runs off. On the drive home she’s crying and gets in a head-on collision. (Maybe intentional.) When she wakes up in the hospital the sugar daddy is there. He’s her dad. Oh shit. I get it now.
When the waiter, Zhen, shows up at the hospital to give Xia Xia her phone, she convinces him to go get her a charger. Oh, and some dumplings. At first she’s just taking advantage of him. She rudely tells him to leave because her friends are coming to visit her, but said friends only send her a clown with balloons. She and Zhen both pretend it was a sweet gesture, rather than a disappointment. Then she changes the topic:
I know, “woe is me, I’m rich but unhappy” can be hard to relate to, but Xia Xia seems pretty cool, right? She likes STEP UP! Later we learn that it’s her dream to join a dance crew (sadly we don’t get much dancing). When she’s out of the hospital she goes back to her life, including hanging out with her crowd of rich assholes at the restaurant, but she gets fed up with it. She ignores Zhen in his capacity as a waiter until he spills a little water at their table and her boyfriend is a total prick about it, saying ”Are you fucking blind?,” blowing smoke in his face, making him look at the Gucci label on the collar.
Zhen offers to pay for it, but then Xia Xia does the right thing:
(Throws her own drink on him without even looking.)
Then she leaves and Zhen sort of becomes her much shyer Channing Tatum, showing her the life of a non-rich person, getting street food and riding on the back of his bicycle and stuff.
Okay, once again maybe I should’ve caught their names and figured it out, but after Candy refuses to loan any money to Old Wang or sell the house he swallows his pride and goes to visit this son everybody keeps mentioning to him, and that son is Zhen. Zhen wears a tie and buys Dad an expensive piece of cake at an animal-themed coffee shop, tells him he’ll get him the money. But he doesn’t have it, of course. He’s a waiter. And eventually the crisis with the sick pigs gets so bad that the restaurant closes too. So he resorts to purposely getting hit by cars on his bike and trying to get the drivers to give him cash. Not a great occupation.
To me the best relationship is the estranged brother and sister, and the best scene is when Old Wang shows up at Candy’s house at night, drunk. The power has been turned off, but he has a flashlight, which he shines around at her mementos, and their grandma’s furniture, asking why she’s kept it, calling it “random shit, random shit.” He tells her, “I’m speaking from the heart. Sell this house, and we’re still a family. Alright?” She slaps him. The last thing he says before leaving is, “You don’t need the money, but I do.” It’s cold.
I like this because I relate to Candy: I like to hold on to the old things I love, I don’t think this specific version of multi-family dwellings is progress, I like her house, I admire her stubborn refusal to give in for money from those jerks. But in this scene Old Wang convinced me. How meaningful are all these objects signifying memories of family if she’s specifically rejecting her family to be able to keep them? Is she really gonna refuse to help her own brother and then pretend like nostalgic trinkets keep the family alive?
All of the characters and storylines converge when a construction crew comes to tear the house down with Candy still inside. She stands on the roof in her curlers and bathrobe defying them. It’s less about the dead pigs than the death of the house. But after these losses they’ll try to value what they still have and keep going.
It’s rare that I do this sort of thing, but when the movie ended I decided to put on BIRDS OF PREY and watch both of Yan’s movies back-to-back. And man, I still loved it. They are, of course, totally different movies, with very different tones, set in very different worlds. But I think they share a sympathetic eye for eccentric fuck-ups, as well as a strong visual sense. DEAD PIGS isn’t as playful or gimmicky, with the exception of a singalong near the end, with lyrics on the screen and everything. That would’ve worked for BIRDS OF PREY too, I think.
I think one of the visual connections is eye-popping colors mixed into locations with a certain amount of texture and grit. I made these screengrabs as a sampling of the style.
DEAD PIGS works as a relatable story about normal people dealing with a society that’s increasingly full of shit, as well as just an oddball slice of life dramedy in an interesting setting. I’m sure it has additional meaning to people familiar with modernization and societal changes in Shanghai, and there are some interesting user reviews on IMDb about that. One notes that Mason Lee “is very obviously an ABC [American-Born Chinese] and simply does not fit in the film.” Of course that wasn’t something that registered with me as a problem while watching the movie (I just knew he was Ang Lee’s son, who is set to play Bruce Lee in his father’s Bruce Lee movie, so I was trying to picture that!).
It was originally distributed by Mubi, but now you can watch it with ads on Tubi and other streaming channels, or get it on DVD. (There doesn’t seem to be a blu-ray, for some reason.) I guess this is a standard, goes-without-saying statement to make about directors these days: I hope Yan gets a chance to do more studio stuff with personality like BIRDS OF PREY, but ideally she’d also be able to make more off-the-beaten-path stuff like this.