Dead Pigs review – winding tale of life in cash-crazed Shanghai

Cathy Yan’s sprawling drama uses a real-life discovery of 16,000 porcine corpses to pick away at Chinese commercialism

A breezily westernised style of Chinese movie is on offer in this 2018 debut feature from Chinese-American film-maker Cathy Yan, who two years later went to Hollywood to direct Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie. Dead Pigs is an ensemble dramedy set in Shanghai that satirises – in a distinctly lenient way – the commercialism eating away at China’s heart. It is inspired by a real-life incident in which thousands of dead pigs were found in the city’s Huangpu river, dumped by poverty-stricken farmers who couldn’t pay the disposal fees; the pig symbolism reminded me a tiny bit of Alan Bennett’s A Private Function.

Candy Wang (Vivian Wu) is a beauty salon owner who lives in her parents’ rickety old house, the only one standing in a rubble-strewn waste ground, because she is holding out against offers from a property company called Golden Happiness; it wants to build a bizarre Vegas-style development there based on Barcelona, complete with a tacky replica of the Sagrada Família. Her brother Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) is in dire financial trouble after borrowing money from gangsters to fund his absurd “investment portfolio” in pigs, which have all died. Old Wang’s son Zhen (Mason Lee) is a hard-up waiter who pretends to his dad he’s doing well; he befriends wealthy Instagram-style princess Xia Xia (Meng Li) and soon finds out how lonely and unhappy she really is. Meanwhile, Golden Happiness have hired a smooth American architect called Sean (David Rysdahl), whose US qualifications are phoney: he has been recruited by another American, Angie (Zazie Beetz), for sideline work as a model for promo events, pretending to be an American celeb or reality TV star.

The movie zings and pinballs around, ricocheting within its ironic pattern of coincidences, and those dead pigs keep bobbing metaphorically up, reported by TV news broadcasts – always a cheesy and unconvincing storytelling technique. Dead Pigs is an unassuming topical entertainment (rather different from the movies of its executive producer Jia Zhangke), but diverting and well-acted.

• Released on 12 February on Mubi.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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