Two years before Cathy Yan was welcomed under the tentpole for the Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey in 2020, she displayed her original voice in Dead Pigs. The Chinese-language movie has finally emerged on the Mubi streaming platform. Set in Shanghai and the neighbouring Jiaxing town, the seriocomic drama examines themes of aspiration, materialism, gentrification, forced displacement and inequality – which have the potential to resonate strongly with Indian audiences.
The most vivid among the handful of leading characters is Candy (Vivian Wu), a no-nonsense bundle of independence and rootedness. The average workday at Candy’s beauty salon begins with a pep talk that includes the rousing slogans “I am the best! I am talented! I am unique! I will succeed!”
Yet, Candy is no conformist, choosing to be the last holdout against a massive housing complex in Jiaxing.
This makeover queen is the only genuine article in a film spilling over with people who want to escape their limitations and realities. These include the promoters of the housing project, which is modelled on a Spanish cathedral, Candy’s hopeless brother Wang (Haoyu Yang), who stumbles from one failure to the next, and his son Wang Zhen (Mason Lee), who is pretending to be wealthier than he is.
Sean (David Rysdahl), an American architect employed with the company that wants to rehouse Candy, is similarly unable to live up to the hopeful speeches he gives potential investors.
Cathy Yan’s screenplay moves smoothly for the most part between the inter-linked and oppositional plot strands. The comfy clutter of Candy’s house is clearly preferable to the glittering but soulless pleasures of Shanghai’s high-rises and nightclubs. The working-class Wang Zhen’s entanglement with the dissolute heiress Xia Xia (Li Meng) leads to romance but also creates false hopes. In punching above his weight, Wang Zhen proves to be a chip off the old block.
Dead Pigs derives its title from the scores of swine that are mysteriously dying and sending pig farmers to ruin. Elsewhere, dreams perish or take flight in unexpected ways. The Chinese-American production follows in the wake of several Chinese movies that have portrayed the seismic changes wrought by rampant urbanisation and the presence of global capital in China in recent decades.
However, Dead Pigs doesn’t quite have the resonance or depth of the films of Jia Zhangke (who serves as an executive producer on this film) or Wang Xiaoshuai, whose marvellous So Long, My Son is also being streamed on Mubi.
What Dead Pigs does well is skewer the craze for all things shiny and new in Shanghai and elsewhere. Yan has a sharp eye for kitsch and plastic pomp. A track that is as hilarious as it is underdeveloped revolves around Sean. His desperate need to be valued leads him to accept the proposal of a mystery woman (Zazie Beetz) to appear as a fake American ambassador at local product launches.
“It’s a mall world!” Sean declares at one such event, articulating the hollow and sometimes farcical obsession with Western-style development that has gripped Asian cities with rich histories of their own.
The Shanghai high life is filled with shiny surfaces and neon colours, but the warmest space is Candy’s blue-toned home, the only thing standing in a desert of rubble. The terrific Vivian Wu, who looks like she will merge with her wallpaper any minute, is promised the “American experience”.
But Candy only wants the Chinese experience – to live as she pleases in her ancestral home, commune with her fluffy dog and pet pigeons, and resist the inexorable.