The Movie Waffler New Release Review [MUBI] - DEAD PIGS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [MUBI] - DEAD PIGS

dead pigs review
An assortment of eccentric characters converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Cathy Yan

Starring: Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Meng Li, David Rysdahl

dead pigs poster

Hollywood’s indie-to-IP pipeline is in full force these days, the avenue in which studios recruit an impressive indie director to make the next entry in an existing franchise - examples include Jon Watts going from Cop Car to Spider-Man and Colin Trevorrow’s transition from $750,000 drama Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, which cost $150m. Online discussions often revolve around judging which Marvel, DC or Star Wars character each filmmaker could be assigned to but the insistence on casting these filmmakers at the helm of a blockbuster can result in missing out on interesting, original material as promised by their previous work.

Personally, this writer has no problem with filmmakers getting paid well and, though there are plenty of examples of cool voices being relegated to directors-for-hire, we can also sometimes get something with real passion behind it. E.g. Ryan Coogler had pitched Creed to Sylvester Stallone before he even began production on Fruitvale Station, and Kevin Feige claims Chloe Zhao's pitch for Marvel’s The Eternals is the best he's ever heard, which inspires optimism for the forthcoming feature.

dead pigs review

Last year's Birds of Prey, a picture with far more zest and creativity than anything else in DC's cinematic universe, was gifted to us by Cathy Yan, who was following up from her indie film Dead Pigs, a compelling Chinese drama that’s only now being distributed outside of China, thanks to MUBI, following the critical and commercial success of her Suicide Squad spin-off.

For those who saw or will see Dead Pigs prior to Birds of Prey and want to play matchmaker between Yan and established IP, there are clear reasons for why she was a good hire for the Harley Quinn feature. Number one, she's excellent at managing an ensemble cast and dedicating ample time to connect us with each of her characters. Secondly, her ability to pull off postmodern, absurdist humour. Then there's her strong visual sense, marked by a vivid use of colour. For those who subscribe to the auteur theory, Yan certainly has signature elements that characterise both of her films, and Dead Pigs is particularly fascinating in how she merges her rich imagination with real life.

The film is inspired by a real event in 2013 in which a total of over 16,000 dead pigs were found floating in the Huangpu River in Shanghai. The bizarre incident has been interpreted by the filmmaker as a metaphor of financial progress. Employing the sort of panoramic ensemble storytelling that would make Robert Altman proud, this drama focuses on a handful of disparate characters whose lives are defined by their various economic circumstances, driving them in various directions that intertwine in unique ways.

dead pigs review

Though she’s arguably the most essential component of the narrative, the best performance and best character is Vivian Wu’s Candy Wang, a small business owner who is stuck between her disinterest in selling her family home for a high price and her brother begging her to sell the place so he can be saved from his dire circumstances. He, Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), is a pig farmer who rambles his way around the city to try and hustle money in order to pay off debts to some gangsters. He is also the owner of many dead pigs. The complicated dynamic between the siblings is one marked by repeated frustration, and the climax to their episode is a masterclass in tragicomedy, serving an image that you won’t forget.

Old Wang’s infamy is covered up by his son Wang Zheng (Mason Lee), a waiter who tells people his father is far more successful than he actually is and is subject to many requests for money from his old man. One audience member of Wang Zheng’s lies is Xia Xia (Meng Li), a generational wealth product who has probably never had to take a political position in her life. Her ambition is to join her favourite popstar’s team of dancers but for now she’s living in the moment, spending time with this affable waiter in the glistening, neon-tinted Shanghai nights.

In between them all is a young American architect, Sean (David Rysdahl), whose local failures have brought him abroad to China. It’s easy to see why his ideas weren’t received so well at home - his plan for a new housing complex in Shanghai is a peculiar imitation of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia. Nevertheless, he has everyone on board except the most important person - Candy, whose house would need to be acquired by the property developer in order to make space for the new cathedral-like building. Money is at the heart of everything during this period of rapid modernisation but it’s the personal values - family, community, honesty, ambition, stability - that ultimately may be what the characters need to save themselves.

dead pigs review

While Birds of Prey was scribed by Christina Hodson, Dead Pigs is both directed and written by Yan and showcases her excellence at both crafts. She effortlessly trades between character study and plot-driven events while maintaining a cultural specificity to the people and themes she explores, shepherding uniformly excellent performances from her cast that establish the tone of her dramedy.

Cinematographer Federico Cesca has experience in shooting films around the world, from the American Patti Cake$ to the Egyptian Yomeddine, and one assumes he spent ample time embedded in Shanghai to be able to capture the city’s beauty and complexity as well as he does, communicating to us the exact extent of which the city is a financial centre of the world and cannily filming in dense locations. It’s a testament to Yan’s tastes that she’s able to work so effectively with her DoPs to make her films visually pop in the way they do. The weighty two-plus hour runtime of the film can be felt at times but Dead Pigs is largely a treat for the eyes, intellect and emotion.

Dead Pigs is on MUBI from February 12th.

2021 movie reviews