By Diana Cheng
AAP film review
SIFF Review — The transformation that China has gone through in the first decade of the new millennium has been extraordinary. While the urban landscape in China’s metropolis make lucrative ventures for capitalists, the interior terrain of the inhabitants may just be of interest only to those concerned with the human psyche. Chinese-American filmmaker Cathy Yan has chosen a slick and comedic styling to highlight the human perspective of modernization, with backdrop aptly in the megapolis of Shanghai.
In this her directorial debut feature, Yan has created a high energy concoction that is a fusion of colorful comedy and realistic drama. The comedic genre allows her to satirize and exaggerate, and she takes advantage of those elements effectively. “Dead Pigs” won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year for Dramatic Ensemble Acting.
Born in China, Yan grew up in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program. Before filmmaking, Yan was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in New York, Hong Kong and Beijing.
The feature is executive produced by the prominent Chinese arthouse filmmaker Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, 2013). Interestingly, a couple years ago he had also backed another new director on the same subject matter of modernization in China with the production of “Life After Life” (2016). “Dead Pigs” is a much lighter and colorful take on the theme with a postmodern styling. The film is a selection in the China Stars Showcase at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival, May 17 – June 10.
Five lives in Greater Shanghai intersect as their stories are tactfully woven together. A pig farmer, Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), living in the outskirt of the City suddenly finds his pigs die of unknown reason. With no means to deal with the aftermath, he throws his dead pigs into the river. In dire financial needs, Old Wang appeals to his sister Candy Wang (Vivian Wu) for help but is right-out refused. A feisty owner of a beauty salon in Shanghai, Candy is on top of her game. Her business attracts loyal customers and sustains a fleet of dedicated staff, whom she trains with military cadence in aerobics formation, shouting out calls of positivity and team work.
While Candy enjoys a bustling business, she has to deal with a problem with her ancestral, family home in which she still lives. The house is designated to be torn down in a piece of land planned for a new development. As the last house standing among the rubble, Candy refuses to sell to the developers despite their lucrative offer and the urging of his financially strapped brother.
Project architect Sean Landry (David Rysdahl) personally visits Candy to sway her but to no avail. In return, he is given an object lesson as Candy shows him the pigeons she keeps in a cage outside her house. She hands him one as a gift. Releasing the pigeon as he steps away from a distance, Sean watches it fly straight back to Candy’s house. Home is where the bird will fly back to even when set free.
Cut to the dimmed color lights of an upscale Shanghai nightclub where the rich escape numbing boredom and flaunt their wealth, we see a young waiter Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, a tidbit: son of director Ang Lee) secretly nurtures a love for a regular customer, Xia Xia (Meng Li), the daughter of a powerful businessman. Here we have the realistic drama of what seems to be a tale of unrequited love due to differences in class and wealth. But twists and turns draw these two together. And still on another trajectory, the young man is connected to the pig farmer. Yan handles this subplot with nuanced sensitivity.
The screenplay is based on a real event in 2013 when up to 16,000 dead pigs were found dumped into the Huangpu River upstream of Shanghai. Yan uses that incident as the backdrop of her story and boldly exposes the fact that, while economic modernization is being touted by the power on top inducing money to flood in for development, the building of the massively needed social, health, and ethical infra-structures just cannot keep up. Yan’s film embeds multiple issues and raises flags of caution. Again, kudos to the writer director, the comedic handling disperses any dark clouds of moralizing.
As the film moves towards the end, the touch of comedy has gone overboard to a farcical treatment, and the finale, a mass karaoke singing is like a parody of a Bollywood finish. Yet, the very last scene wins. What are siblings for if not to act as target for bickering?
From what looks like a new wave of Chinese American filmmakers emerging in recent years, Yan is chosen by Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment to helm an upcoming “Harley Quinn” flick with Margot Robbie (“Suicide Squad”, 2016) reprising her role. With this new production, Yan will make history as the first female Asian to direct a superhero movie. Looks like “Dead Pigs” is a debut to a promising career for the director.
“Dead Pigs” will screen at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival May 18 and 19. For details and tickets click here.