Dead Pigs (4 stars)

Dead Pigs

The first film from Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan finally gets a release

If Chinese-American director Cathy Yan seemingly shot out of the blue with last year's sensational Birds of Prey, it wasn't actually her first rodeo. Despite favourable festival reviews, the 2018 film that won her that high-profile DC Extended Universe gig is only now getting a release, courtesy of streaming platform MUBI. Yan's debut is a multi-narrative comedy drama, inspired by the 2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident.

Cutting across Chinese society and connecting its characters by family ties, business dealings or romantic interests, it's a story about pride, disappointment, stubbornness and love. Haoyu Yang plays Old Wang, a pig farmer and bullshit peddler. He's the brother of beauty salon owner Candy (Vivian Wu), who is being pressured out of the pair's original family home by developers Golden Happiness Properties, as they clear the way for a Spanish-themed complex. We meet the American architect for this project, Sean (David Rysdahl), while waiter Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) also features when he falls for spoilt customer Xia Xia (Meng Li), with more connections revealed as events unfold.

Combining eccentricity with empathy for a wide variety of plights, Dead Pigs is a film with lots of lovely touches: Yan seems quite a fan of synchronised dance routines, with the salon employees in particular displaying some great motivational chants and moves; while Candy has an outrageous catchphrase, which she likes to remind her workers of as she departs ('There are no ugly women. Only lazy ones!'). And this vain character's attachment to her shabby home is endearing too. It's not all entirely successful, a satirical sub-plot featuring an agency which uses supposedly wealthy white people to sell properties (Zazie Beetz features as one of their representatives) feels a bit underexplored and a slightly odd fit with the more personal material.

Yan shows herself a confident filmmaker from the off by maintaining tension and interest and developing characters well across the strands. Anyone expecting the almost manic vivacity she would later bring to Birds of Prey will be surprised, this is energetically directed and enjoyable, but nowhere near as wild or broad-brush in its approach. It's a film that keeps on peeling back layers and which ultimately feels rather touching in its unstereotypical view of humanity. Here, no-one is what they initially seem and there is hope for them all.

Available to watch on MUBI from Fri 12 Feb.

Dead Pigs

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • China / US
  • 2h 10min
  • Directed by: Cathy Yan
  • Cast: Zazie Beetz, Mason Lee, Meng Li
  • UK release: 12 February 2021

Thousands of dead pigs are found floating down the river that leads to Shanghai.