Newcomer Cathy Yan’s slick debut film Dead Pigs attempts to shed light on the sweeping economic and social changes that have gripped China’s famed city of Shanghai over the last decade through multiple storylines. Her sprawling, overly ambitious approach ultimately falls a bit short despite a star-studded cast and spectacular cinematography.
Executive produced by Sixth Generation heavyweight Jia Zhangke, Dead Pigs is told through five characters bent on getting ahead in China’s shifting economic climate. Old Wang (Yang Haoyu) is a pig farmer turned stock market investor who’s been duped and is now heavily in debt. Worse, many of his hogs have died mysteriously, and the loan sharks are after him. His better-off sister Candy (Vivian Wu) is a feisty hair salon owner who refuses to sell out to a mega-bucks developer and let the ancestral home fall prey to the bulldozers. Zhen (Mason Lee) is Old Wang’s migrant-worker son who tries to find his feet in the city as a nightclub busboy. There’s also Xiaxia (Li Meng), a rich but lonely girl who frequents the bar that Zhen works at. Finally, there’s Sean (David Rysdahl), a fish-out-of-water American architect who reinvents himself as the ‘white-face’ spokesperson for developers targeting wealthy Chinese clients.
Yan, a Chinese-American ex-journalist trained at New York University’s film school, is the film’s director and writer. Perhaps in part because she’s trying to please both the domestic and international audiences, the film suffers from a few problems. The first is its misleading title. From the name Dead Pigs, we’re led to believe the story is mostly about the sensational 2013 incident when thousands of pig carcasses were dumped into the Huangpu River, causing public outrage over water sanitation and a potential epidemic. In the narrative, however, the pig story takes up limited amount of film time before being pushed into the background. In fact, most of the references about the incident are mentioned in passing as TV news snippets. In short, the porcine-related events are used merely as a frame to anchor the tale.
It is Candy’s strikingly green, traditional home – the last-standing structure on a lot slated for new development – that is given center stage. We see the narrative focus repeatedly on Candy’s battle with the demolition team and the rich developer, who pesters her with the lure of hefty relocation payments.
Yet Candy does not move us enough as a key character, even though we applaud her courage and defiance amid immense pressure to give up on her house. Why? Because we’re not given enough to understand why she feels so strongly about saving the ancestral house. She doesn’t budge even when Old Wang begs her to sell the house so part of the proceeds can pay his debts. As a result, we can’t share her conviction and her pain when she climbs atop the house in a final protest.
This nagging feeling of not being able to relate doesn’t stop with Candy. The film has too many characters, which allows little time for us to get to know any of them well. Indeed, the American expat character could have been done without entirely given that his story feels gratuitous and does little to advance the plot. Perhaps his only role was to appeal to an international audience.
Another disjoined feature of the film is the use of Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng’s megahit “I Only Care About You” as its theme song. Against the backdrop of shiny 21st Century Shanghai skyscrapers, the sappy 1986 song comes off as dated and cheesy. And it is downright embarrassing and bewildering when it is belted out in an abrupt group sing-along toward the film’s end. Was this done intentionally, given that Dead Pigs is touted as a Hollywood style dark comedy? Maybe. Whatever the intention, it doesn’t work. A hip-hop track by rapper Mao Yanqi in the line of “My New Swag” would have been much more apt.
To be fair, Dead Pigs does have a lot going for it, too. In fact, the first 30 minutes show great promise as the camera rolls from rural Shanghai to different corners of the city punctuated by the breathtaking Huangpu River. Cinematographer Federico Cesca’s use of color is particularly stunning.
Similarly, Wu and Yang both deliver a commendable performance. Wu is particularly praiseworthy as Candy, creating a sassy and courageous character that commands both respect and admiration. Yang also offers some touching moments in his role as Old Wang, particularly when he discovers that Zhen has been lying about being gainfully employed. At this point, both father and son find they cannot admit that both been a disappointment to each other.
Dead Pigs could have been much more successful had Yan been more focused on who her audiences are. Still, her effort to follow the Sixth Generation filmmakers’ tradition of looking closely at the repercussions of China’s modernization are laudable while she brings a quirky energy and lightness to the often gloomy social realism of China’s indie cinema.
Dead Pigs is showing on November 11 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.