When my husband and I visited China, we walked the Simatai portion of The Great Wall, a six-hour journey through mountainous countryside. Afterward, we skirted past trinket stands near the exit until we saw a man painting traditional Chinese characters on paper. A Chinese couple were also admiring his deft brushstrokes, and we fell into conversation after learning that the wife, a Chinese language professor, spoke English. I pointed to the character I was considering buying and asked her if she knew what it represented; she indicated the legs of an animal, and said it was the ancient Chinese character for “home,” a combination of the character for a shelter and that of a pig.
That fact, and the centrality of pigs to Chinese folklore—they are variously represented as lazy, steadfast and good-natured—and to the country’s cuisine, “meat” is synonymous with “pork,” means that Cathy Yan’s title, Dead Pigs, is about more than lifeless animals. Actually, the writer-director’s characters grapple with the meaning of “home” to the backdrop of an incident in China that received global news coverage. In 2013, 16,000 dead pigs floated down from riparian villages on the Huangpu River into Shanghai harbor. Like her executive producer, Jia Zhangke (Ash is the Purest White, 2018), whose dramas chronicle the effects on ordinary Chinese citizens of the country’s reckless course to modernization, Yan’s accomplished debut marks the demise, and post-mortem, of Chinese culture in the wake of these changes.
For readers who have heard of Cathy Yan, but not of Dead Pigs, may recall she is the director on Birds of Prey, released in 2020. That is a movie theatrical distributors have no trouble categorizing since it is a franchise; it is also what passes for a feminist storyline in Hollywood. (For anyone who found The Joker unbearable, or somnolent, as I did, Birds of Prey is a must-see film, if only for Yan’s direction.) Dead Pigs opened in China, but only received limited distribution in the U.S. Unlike Crazy Rich Asians (2018), that can be described in one sentence, Dead Pigs, that had its Sundance premier the same year, does not belong to any identifiable genre. (For more on this subject watch the hilarious opening scenes of Robert Altman’s The Player, 1992). It is original and “art house”—and the kind of satire that died along with Robert Altman.
Interestingly, Dead Pigs is Zhangke’s first credit as an executive producer on a movie that he did not write and direct. (That title generally infers financial support, rather than artistic collaboration.) A few comparisons may explain the famous “Sixth Generation” veteran’s interest in Yan, a young, Chinese-born immigrant to the United States. At first glance, it is apparent that, in terms of filmmaking style, or mise-en-scène, the two writer-directors are quite different. Zhangke favors long takes, and is a master of composition and the use of symbols to convey ideas and emotions. In one film, he evokes China’s storied past through shots of a tiger, a potent figure in Chinese mythology, and in another, the past is represented by a traditional figure in a New Year’s parade.
Zhangke’s singularity stems in part from a preference for classical narrative structure, and a picture editing style called “continuity editing,” right out of classic Hollywood and associated with artifice, yet his movies often possess a searing realism. One example is the masterful Still Life (2006), about the displacement of thousands during the building of a dam on the Yangtze River. In Dead Pigs, a satire that consists of many interwoven stories and an ensemble cast, Yan often cuts abruptly, and relies on the kind of snappy conversation and pleasingly frenetic pace found in American screwball comedy, in part because style follows content. Comedies require a careful pacing. Nevertheless, Yan’s narrative is also backgrounded by actual events: the floating pigs are depicted as realistically as the flooding on the Yangtze in Still Life, and to achieve the same ends, namely to chronicle the human toll of “progress.”
Both filmmakers rely on stark contrasts, such as in their characters’ rural and urban lifestyles, or in their displacement in these environments, to represent the growing inequities in a society that is quickly embracing capitalism. Zhangke and Yan also use music to signal an era, and to express sentiments that unite their characters; for the veteran filmmaker, it often carries with it a sense of longing. In Dead Pigs, Yan’s pop music score lends both artificiality and irony to her multiple storylines; any longing for a more authentic China is tinged with wry humor. Many of these stylistic devices are apparent in the young writer-director’s deft introduction of her cast.
She begins with Old Wang (Yang Haoyu), a disgruntled pig farmer, and brother to Candy (Vivian Wu, The Last Emperor), a saucy business owner, unlike any Chinese female film character American audiences have ever seen. (Soon-ja, the Korean grandmother played by Youn Yuh-jung in Minari must have warmed Yan’s heart.) Old Wang is in a store, sampling an expensive virtual reality device, and testing the patience of the salesperson. He buys it, and shortly afterward, learns that he is the victim of an investment scam. He returns to his village of Jiaxing, near Shanghai, to find that one of his pigs has died. The writer-director then cuts to a group of young women dressed in crisp, red uniforms in the throes of their morning routine at Candy’s spa.
The perfectly coiffed “Miss Wang,” dressed in a beautifully cut, silk brocade suit, cheers on her employees as they shout in unison: “I am the best” and “I am unique.” Miss Wang’s motto, and her parting salvo to her customers, as she departs for the day is: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” Candy then traverses a development site littered with debris in her scooter, to arrive at her sky blue, two-story home. The lone structure’s facade would not be out of place on the set of a 1950s Western. As for its color, blue is lighter than the weighty reds and imperial yellow-golds associated with China, and suggests a certain optimism on Candy’s part. When she arrives, real estate developers are there to meet her, and are welcomed with a swift rebuff. Candy refuses to sell her house, thereby stalling the planned, high-rise “Spanish Village.” Her audacious behavior toward the men, coupled with her tenderness in caring for her beloved homing pigeons to whom she sings the film’s theme song, “I Only Care About You,” Candy is easily the most charismatic character in the movie.
Yan then cuts to a meeting at Golden Happy Properties, where the American architect, Sean (David Rysdahl), is being hailed by his Chinese employers as a genius for his design of the high-rise “village.” The celebration features half a dozen Chinese dancers in Spanish flamenco attire. It is another of Yan’s pokes at the Chinese appetite for Western influence. Sean is later recruited to pose as a European businessman by a company that promotes real estate developments to affluent Chinese. The last of the characters are two young people destined to become a couple, the handsome Wang Zhen (Mason Lee), son of Old Wang, and a waiter in a restaurant frequented by rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng). In Yan’s superb screenplay, the trials and tribulations of her characters are cleverly intertwined with the fate of the pigs.
In fact, “dead pigs” is a double-entendre. Throughout the movie, as their numbers increase, T.V. news reports flash across the screen, as does footage of them being fished from the river. Who could imagine 300-pound animals, some weighted before they were submerged, rising to the surface? That recurring query is posed by news anchors in the film, and it eventually receives a scientific explanation—but what about other things that are discarded or concealed and then resurface? For Yan, that question and the answer to it are metaphorical: in the course of the movie, the reason for the demise of the pigs is revealed, and disgraces a billionaire. Free associate, and one might say that what feeds China is diseased, that neither the pigs nor their caretakers could do anything to prevent their fate. If the dead pig is a symbol, then the country is poisoned by greed and shoddy manufacturing.
China is the largest agricultural economy in the world, and in Old Wang, Yan represents the group most affected by the country’s growing wealth disparity. The farmer tells a journalist that his pigs live better than he does; they have more to eat, and they have him to take care of them. His son Zhen works in the city, perhaps in the hope of living better than the pigs and his father; ironically, his restaurant’s specialty is suckling pig, and it closes during the pig pandemic. To stretch a metaphor, even the young—pigs and people—are sacrificed in China’s decades-long race to modernity. When Old Wang discovers Zhen does not have an office job or his own apartment, fictions Zhen perpetuates so that his father will accept money from him, Old Wang rejects his only son.
Zhen then bicycles home, heartbroken and distraught, and is hit by a car. The driver offers him money so that he will not report the accident to the police, and leaves him on his back in the street. In the darkest moments of the film, Zhen, having learned a hard lesson of city life, begins throwing himself in front of oncoming cars so that he can extort money from the motorists, and help his father pay his debts. In many ways, Zhen is a victim of his father’s stupidity and self-centeredness; while that circumstance is hardly confined to Chinese culture, the reverence paid to one’s elders in China makes the devoted teenager especially vulnerable. The same may be said for Xia Xia who has a car accident after being disillusioned by her father; he is having an affair with a young woman she knows, while his wife is out of town. Unlike Zhen, Xia Xia causes an injury—she crashes into a street vendor, an incident that she tries to rectify.
Zhen visits Xia Xia at the hospital in order to return the cellphone that she left at the restaurant the evening of the accident. At first, she is imperious with Zhen because of the class difference between them, but that facade dissipates under his affectionate gaze. While Yan presents all of her characters with an objective eye (she was a journalist before becoming a filmmaker), and a keen comedic sensibility, she is particularly sympathetic to the privileged young woman who has a great deal to learn about life. For the vast majority of viewers in the U.S., that will feel a bit off-putting, even if Xia Xia, too, is a victim or her upbringing. In the end, she is redeemed somewhat by her love and respect for Zhen.
While Candy is not afforded the same sympathetic gaze, she is characterized with a sublime montage, to the accompaniment of a classy, upbeat tune right out of a Hollywood musical as she cleans house, exercises, and paints a credible portrait of her lap dog. She is clad in pink curlers, a leopard-patterned robe and bunny slippers. At other times, when she dons this girlish outfit, she adds a fuzzy, pink head covering with pig-like ears—a mark of her vulnerability, or her pig-handedness, as negative a trait for the Chinese as it is in our culture. At one point, a Gibson Girl ribbon headband encircles Candy’s head, like the one Debbie Reynolds wore in Singing in the Rain (1952). Candy may be in China, but her aesthetic sensibilities, for ill or good, are mixed; for instance, she is a fan of classic Hollywood. Her business attire is Chinese brocade, but when caring for her homing pigeons and watering her garden, she wears westernized clothing. In the spirit of satire, Athena Wang’s costume design stretches credulity with the bunny slippers, and maybe the ribbon, yet it lends an assailable aspect to Candy’s intractable stance of refusing to sell her home, even when her brother is being stalked by thugs who are also threatening her nephew.
Yan’s delightful musical and narrative riffs of American comedy are also a homage, and are represented in Joe Yao’s production design. Part of Candy’s beauty regimen is conducted before the mirror of a 1930s-era, Heywood-style vanity, and while dusting, she walks past feather-patterned wallpaper of the sort found in American homes of the 1940s. Both suggest a Western orientation, yet Foo dogs dominate the mantle in her living room. Candy preserves objects in the same way that she attempts to preserve the traditional values that begin with honoring the memory of her family by not selling their home. Nevertheless, old Wang’s criticism of these objects, and Candy’s acquisitive nature, carry the ring of truth. Their disagreements undoubtedly stem from longstanding sibling differences, yet they may also suggest a growing tension in China, as Candy’s middle-class aspirations irritate Old Wang.
The scenes with Candy are object lessons in the way costume and production design can define the personality and circumstances of the character, as well provide a sense of place for the viewer. As for the latter, in Dead Pigs, Candy alone values her place in the world. Old Wang’s home is spare and adjacent to the pig pen. Sean, who may or may not have gotten his degree in architecture, and who creates a simulacrum of Spain in the Spanish village, finds a home in Shanghai where he can escape a less than successful past. Ironically, his value to the developers is his status as a foreigner. He tells Candy that refusing to sell her house is preventing others from having a home, but Candy is getting booted off her land for a Spanish village, not one for Spanish people, but for affluent Chinese and foreigners who are not happy living in China. Sean’s insensitivity is so matter-of-fact that viewers may miss Yan’s sharp critique of his ilk, the foreign business interests “developing” China.
Zhen’s home is the top of a bunk bed in a shared room, a visual representation of his fragility. Xia Xia’s home has a spectacular view of the colorful Shanghai skyline, but in a telling medium long shot, she appears diminished by it. Later in the film, she tells Zhen that China may not be where she belongs. Yan was born in China, and lived her early life there; afterward, she emigrated with her parents to the U.S., but then returned to Hong Kong as an adolescent. She attended college in the U.S., and now calls New York home. In Dead Pigs, she asks her audience to ponder the end game of “home,” in the broadest sense of that word: if people pull at the ties that bind them, or they leave home, what is left to treasure? Is everyone moving toward global citizenship or rootlessness? Who or what is being left behind?
This sense of displacement, of temporary homes, of the destruction of home, and the entire metonymy of home, is never dispelled in Dead Pigs. When Candy climbs to the top floor terrace of her home, her confrontations with the real estate developers having made her a national celebrity, she stares down the bulldozer, and Old Wang suddenly cries out, fearing she will jump. Zhen arrives, with Xia Xia not far behind; the press, Candy’s employees and the demolition crew are all are gathered in front of the house. In the pendulous atmosphere that follows Old Wang’s ululation, viewers may grasp Candy’s conundrum, and not for the first time, wonder what happens to homing pigeons when their home is gone. Yan’s riposte lies in the watery background of the end titles.
Film Movement, 122 minutes, in English and Chinese (Mandarin/Shanghainese)