Dead Pigs entwines social satire and family drama amongst the simulacra of modern China

A Virtual Reality headset, a beauty salon and a porcine virus converge in Cathy Yan’s tightly-woven, upbeat tale of life in Shanghai.

Dead Pigs (2018)

Dead Pigs is streaming on Mubi.

In the opening scene of Cathy Yan’s satirical dramedy Dead Pigs, a middle-aged pig farmer, Wang (Yang Haoyu), buys a VR headset, to show it off in his village. The gadget’s high-tech promise of immediacy and speed, versus the farmer’s rustic surroundings, is one of the contrasts that Yan deploys with humorous brio in her film.

Such vision of sharp techno-social cleavage harks back to the films of the Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke; but where Jia casts a mostly critical eye on China’s vertiginous global ascent, Yan mediates social critique with buoyancy.

On the same day he makes his rash purchase, a mysterious swine plague strikes Wang’s village. In the film’s central image, the local river is soon infested with hundreds of dumped pig carcasses. His pigs dead, his money lost in a dubious scam, Wang can’t repay his debts and falls prey to ruthless local thugs.

Meanwhile, Wang’s sister, Candy, played with superb crispness by Vivian Wu (the star of Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, 1996), is the successful owner of a beauty salon. Her motto “There are no ugly women. Only lazy ones!” is a slogan for a China where failure is stigmatised and success must constantly be performed on a public stage. Unsurprisingly, the tough-minded Candy clashes with her bungling brother over his haphazard business affairs.

Dead Pigs (2018)

In the film’s multiple interweaving story threads, Wang’s blunders mirror Candy’s own crisis. With her preened little dog and impeccable hair and clothes, her salon cadres trained like overzealous army cadets, Candy may be an image of icy perfection, but she’s a sentimentalist at heart.

Unlike her brother, desperate to cash in on their family inheritance, Candy clings to her ramshackle family home. When she’s pressured by developers – and one particularly spunky Missourian architect, bent on making his name in China after a string of failures back home – the stage is set for Candy’s final, media-frenzied showdown against progress. This finale, involving bulldozers facing a debris-strewn lawn, is the film’s most high-voltage, operatic scene.

Before that sublime and hilarious end, Yan prods through some moral complexities of late-capitalism in China. In a parallel thread, Wang’s son, Zhen (Mason Lee), barely scrapes by, working as a waiter at a restaurant in Shanghai. Rather than tell his father the truth about his job grind, Zhen pretends he is wildly successful. He then falls for a young, lonely socialite, Xia Xia (Li Meng), who one day runs over a watermelon-stand owner while drunk.

Zhen and Xia Xia’s quasi-romance never touches on class difference or social status in any meaningful way; instead, Yan indulges in a brief, albeit sweet, fantasy about the rich helping the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps. She does sprinkle some ennui in this part, with Xia Xia growing disenchanted with her upper-crust milieu as she gravitates towards Zhen, but ultimately these two characters are secondary players to the real drama of Zhen’s father and aunt.

Dead Pigs (2018)

Yan’s wit sparkles most brightly when she subverts some of the grimmer social and urban prognostications that permeate Jia Zhangke’s films. The developers’ sweeping urban plan, for example – fitted with a gaudy replica of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia squeezed between splashy luxury towers – borrows a sardonic touch from Jia’s The World (2004).

But Yan doesn’t spend much energy condemning the developers’ urge to imitate. The new China, like the old Wang’s VR, may be a puzzling simulation, but in today’s world copies increasingly stand in for the real thing. Yan’s characters aren’t worried about aesthetic or cultural claims to authenticity nearly as much as they are about claiming a place in the new pecking order.

Similarly, Yan doesn’t excoriate her characters for their voracious consumption of Western culture or their technological glee. While some of her protagonists, particularly Wang, seem enamoured of gadgetry, they recognise its ephemerality – or as Wang notes, explaining why he gave up his VR set, “Those things upgrade very quickly… I’m gonna get something you’ve never seen before.”

Haoyu plays Wang as a man who knows he’s bluffing – in reality, he appears to have been forced to give up the VR as collateral for his reckless borrowing – but Yan seems to be saying that it never hurts to dream.