Film Review: Cathy Yan’s ‘Dead Pigs’《海上浮城》Is as Whimsical as It Is Bold and Funny
The fates of an unlucky pig farmer, a feisty home-owner defending her property, a lovestruck busboy, a disenchanted rich girl, and an American expat pursuing the Chinese Dream converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs are found floating down the Huangpu River, towards a modernizing Shanghai.
Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Zazie Beetz, Mason Lee, Ming Li, Vivian Wu, David Rysdahl, Haoyu Yang
Language: Mandarin, English
Runtime: 122 minutes
The name Cathy Yan might be familiar to DC Comics fans since her rise to fame after directing Birds of Prey (2020), which has been praised for its flashy visuals and excellent ensemble cast of superheroines. But before Birds of Prey, there is Dead Pigs 《海上浮城》, her lesser-known debut feature film which, in my opinion, is much bolder. In it, her love for quirky yet relatable characters, and her deftness in managing an ensemble cast come through even stronger.
A sharp and hilarious satire of Shanghai’s rapid modernisation, Dead Pigs zooms in on five individuals whose lives gradually intertwine as thousands of pigs die from mysterious causes nationwide. We have Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), a salon owner whose house is slated to be demolished to make way for a cityscape. The architect in charge of designing the cityscape is expat Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), who also models at night as a side job.
Candy’s brother, Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), is a pig farmer who is affected by the pig crisis, and is facing a massive debt from buying an expensive Virtual Reality headset. He turns to his son, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) for help. But unbeknownst to Old Wang, Wang Zhen is struggling to make ends meet as a busboy, and is also infatuated with a rich and socially disaffected girl, Xia Xia (Meng Li).
Managing an ensemble cast – dipping in and out of each character’s lives and backstories without losing control of the film’s overarching structure – is always a tightrope act. But Yan doesn’t fumble at all, and confidently guides her viewers through a pithy and well-edited film. The story seamlessly shuffles back and forth between every character, demonstrating how one character’s actions spell consequences for everybody. Stakes continue to pile as they desperately try to attain their desires, such as Old Wang trying to clear his debt, nosediving the story into an exhilarating, farcical, but nuanced conclusion.
Many reviewers differ as to whether the characters are caricatured or fleshed out. And on the surface, the five characters do seem woefully eccentric, especially Candy Wang with her outlandish robe designs and constant nasal screaming. Given that it’s an ensemble cast, Yan also needs to micromanage them to ensure a seamless, coherent plot, resulting in characters that might seem like they are geared towards plot development only.
But I’m willing to give Yan the benefit of doubt. Despite being unique and quirky, the characters are still relatable. And some of them act in ways contrary to their apparent personalities, proving how complex they are. For instance, even though Xia Xia seems frivolous and uncaring most of the time, she is actually suffocated by loneliness and remorse. If anything, juggling all five characters might be too much on Yan’s plate. The film feels overcrowded with so many storylines, and with too short of a runtime to explore the characters more in depth.
Besides, the film is meant to be tragically comic and quirky, aligned with the film’s satirical tones. Yan’s decision to tackle Shanghai’s modernisation with satire is unique and refreshing. This is especially so since the film’s subject matter has been addressed so many times, especially by the film’s co-executive producer Jia Zhangke, to the point where it risks staleness. Even then, the film says nothing really new, and reiterates criticisms that were covered in the past films about China’s modernisation.
Equally unique is the film’s visuals, with Yan splashing across the screen a wide palette of colours that makes the film so pleasant to gaze. The tension between Shanghai’s developing urbanity and the rural locations is also captured by the beautifully elaborate set design. There is something unsettling yet arresting how Candy’s house, which is designed as colourfully as her personality, looks immaculate in comparison to the sweeping mass of debris and rubble surrounding her house.
At the risk of spoiling too much, the ending of the film is bafflingly brilliant and hilarious, and is my favourite part of what is already a gripping, nuanced film. Dead Pigs is definitely a strong debut, signalling the arrival of a new filmmaker who is uncompromising and fierce in her vision of the world.
Dead Pigs is now streaming on MUBI.
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