Written and directed by Cathy Yan in her feature debut, a bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an expat architect and a disenchanted rich girl converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly modernizing Shanghai. Starring: Mason Lee, Meng Li, David Rysdahl, Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang and Zazie Beetz.
Being the only feature Cathy Yan made before diving into the blockbuster world with Birds of Prey, which the director has stated she didn’t have much creative control over, Dead Pigs is the film to give a much bigger window into Yan’s directorial style. It shows the sincere and sharp talent that Yan has, the atmosphere that the film immediately builds is of a quality you don’t often find in a debut, it feels shaped by the hands of an established filmmaker. There’s almost a 70s Hollywood style vibe to it through it’s slightly chaotic and quirky movement as the story is split between young and old, rich and poor. It feels influenced by a lot of directors, there’s even some moments with a great balance of grit and colour of the city that it almost throws back to Park Chan-wook, but without the gratuitous violence or dismemberments.
One of the great things about Yan’s writing is its oddball quality, it has a very individual energy and a strong personality but beneath that are much more universal issues about money, pride and family. She’s created a quirky, lovable and unusual way to tell this story to bring new life to familiar themes, without losing its culturally specific nature. That may not make it widely accessible, but to do so would lose its personality, regardless there is a very effortless quality to its humour through Yan’s style, it’s naturally funny. It has a very consistent energy, the characters are all unique, particularly Candy (Wu), who is utterly memorable and a huge joy to watch. Although the humour does play a large part, it’s also surprisingly touching and even slightly uncomfortable at times, Yan manages to bring through the comedy and the more serious and emotional nature to its themes. It’s an entertaining journey that goes a lot further than you might expect.
This is undeniably an ensemble piece, the cast is a fantastic mix of actors who all bring through those individual personalities succinctly and there isn’t a weak member among them. Wu gives such a layered performance as Candy, she’s a complex woman with simple values of hard work and loyalty, her flock of racing pigeons are the cherry on top to bring out her kindness and it’s moving to watch. Yang brings quite a coarse personality to Old Wang, he’s a bit of a maverick and constantly down on his luck, hustling to pay his debtors but ultimately he brings a sadness to the film, there’s an innate goodness to him beneath his bluster. Meng Li and Mason Lee make a great pair, they have a strong chemistry and that classic unlikely but destined romance, they both similarly have layered characters that are very different from one another but also bring out the best in each other. Rysdahl’s Sean is an interesting addition, bringing an outsider perspective and a naivety, slightly overwhelmed by Shanghai and being taken along for the ride until he can work up his nerve to step into the driver’s seat.
The film manages to blend two very different sides of life in China, pig farmer versus socialite and a few stops in-between but it does so effortlessly, its use of colour and energy changing to befit each different personality and place. The cinematography (by Federico Cesca) highlights its charm and energy further, which is then enhanced by the score (by Andrew Orkin) which really hits upon the sadness the story holds and brings out its emotions.
Dead Pigs is charmingly unusual, surprisingly emotional and packed with personality. It’s a fresh and unique take on universal issues, it presents them in a way that’s entertaining and relatable. Yan’s writing creates a sharp, odd and energetic story while her direction feels of a quality that you’d expect from an established director rather than a debut feature. It’s a fantastic ensemble but Vivian Wu stands out among them as the incomparable Candy, who likely could have held your attention for the whole feature by herself seamlessly. It’s a fun and surprisingly layered film that goes to unexpected places.