SIFF Film Review – Dead Pigs
Dead Pigs presents a panorama of modern lives in go-go-go Shanghai, like La Dolce Vita (1960) and The Great Beauty (2013) did in Rome or Nashville (1975) did in…well, Nashville. Much like how Magnolia (1998) brought down a rain of frogs to unite its disparate characters, Dead Pigs brings… well, a bunch of dead and diseased hogs floating downriver. The film’s tone is as sweet-natured as its central image is off-putting, the sort of thing I can imagine a lot of people loving (my mom, for example) who will probably never make it past the title. At the same time, a film with so much rotten meat feels like it could cut a little deeper in critiquing city life.
Real estate, more than swine, is the point around which the film’s overlapping stories pivot. On the outskirts of Shanghai – in a field of rubble, with construction cranes framed closer to the city skyline – is a well-kept house, the last holdout stalling construction from the “Golden Happiness Project.” The home is jointly owned by an aging brother and sister. She also owns a pristine urban beauty salon whose mantra is there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. He’s a hardscrabble pig farmer. The farmer’s son lies about business success to his family while starting a relationship sans pretention with a nouveau riche young woman, who relishes stepping outside her social class. Interloping on this chain of social relationships, an earnest young American real estate developer – who grew up in rural Minnesota – thinks he can convince the family to sell. No one here is a villain. Everyone is good at heart, even if good intentions and reckless actions have consequences further downstream.
The movie effectively scales these human stories within both China’s economic rise and a global, trans-national context. Shanghai is – as one character says – “where the world comes to China”. Chinese and English mix in the streets. To the American architect, Shanghai is his land of opportunity. To the high society girl, however, America is naturally the place she’d want to go to realize her dream of being a back-up dancer. Director Cathy Yan, likewise, grew up between Hong Kong and America. She recently signed to direct DC’s Birds of Prey all-female superhero team-up movie (rumoured, too, to have an all-female crew). Yan’s strengths shown in Dead Pigs are in letting actors act and the audience build empathy with them, which could serve well in handling a large, ensemble cast for Prey.
Like the ‘montage of modern life’ films mentioned above, Dead Pigs is both concerned about and enamoured with the pace of city life today. Platitudes like “I will succeed” and “love yourself” are recited earnestly among service industry workers and professionals. The lights of the city are plentiful – gleaming from clubs, the skyline, and cell phones in trendy restaurants with expensive food of disappointing quality. It’s a city of have’s and have-not’s, where ambition can get a young striver far unless circumstances hold him or her back. While the salon owner and pig farmer may debate about hanging on to “tradition” (as exemplified by their jointly-owned house), both are – in different ways – figures of both the past and present, negotiating delicately with Chinese modernity.
At its best, the movie highlights the role of artifice amid the fast pace of city life, how many interactions exist at surface level. This is present from the first shot – a deliberately unrealistic-looking image of the pig farmer swimming underwater, revealed to be a vision in a virtual reality headset. The architect moonlights as a “model” (IE, professional white guy – a profession that does exist in China), pretending to be a wealthy Westerner at events like a mall opening to make the projects look more prestigious than they are. The young lead lies to his father about his wealth, while his actual earning power (avoiding spoilers here) also is bound up in his ability to present an image. His girlfriend views their relationship as a chance to escape expectations placed on her – even if her interests in music and dancing, too, seem earnest if not terribly deep.
Yet the movie is also somewhat disconcertingly non-judgmental about all this. By the end, a character declares what has happened to be “like a true Hollywood movie” and it’s clear that the movie is more enamoured than disturbed by artifice in everyday life. Surface and economic stratification are presented as facts of life, and the challenge is learning to live with them.
As a story, this splits the film between being an earnest examination of lives that could be ‘real’ in modern Shanghai, and character types pulled second-hand from other movies. For a film so canny about the role of artifice in life, its characters seem to be very much what they show to the audience. That can be delightful, as in the scenes where the young couple get to know each other. As a social statement, it’s a layer of hog plop over darkness of the sort that People’s Republic of Desire so thoroughly examines. This is also a film where a lone holdout can grind a real estate development to a halt. Our thoughtful, wide-eyed and naïve Minnesotan architect is perhaps the most representative of the film’s tone here, as someone who believes his project would “build homes for people who need them.” Not explicitly addressed are ample impossible-to-ignore real-life horrors of Chinese real estate development, in which developers seize land and build uninhabitable ‘ghost cites’ they leave half-finished. The dead pigs suggest an easy metaphor for all kinds of social ills, but the movie leaves them mostly ignored to the point that the title subplot could have been easily cut, probably leaving the film slightly more cohesive in terms of plot and tone.
For being so canny about the joys and dangers of superficial surfaces in city life, Dead Pigs acts like delving too much below those surface would spoil the fun. Like the questionable meals at the films’ restaurants, it looks great but isn’t too tasty – and all the while sits alongside piles of dark, raw meat it’s reluctant to serve.