Streaming Review

Dead Pigs review – sharp and whimsical satire of contemporary China

Birds of Prey filmmaker Cathy Yan's debut - deprived of an international release until now - is an acerbic take on consumerism

Two years after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Dead Pigs – the directorial debut from Chinese-born filmmaker Cathy Yan – has finally landed an official international release. Better late than never. Inspired by a real-life incident in 2013 in which 16,000 dead pigs were found floating in the waters of the Huangpu River, the filmmaker crafts a personal, purposely absurd response to contemporary China, showcasing the same, distinct eye for society's quirky and offbeat misfits that made her so right for last year's Birds of Prey.

Utilising an ensemble cast to represent the vast spectrum of society, Dead Pigs offers an acerbic take on identity and personal displacement in a world dominated by greed. At its heart lies Candy (Vivian Wu), a salon owner battling against a development company who want to destroy her family home in order to build a sprawling replica of a Spanish cathedral. Tasked with making this happen is gawky American architect Sean (David Rysdahl) while, in the city, disenchanted socialite Xia Xia (Meng Li) makes an unlikely connection with a shy waiter named Wang (Mason Lee).

Just like in Birds of Prey, Dead Pigs is rife with lucid, neon tones of teal and fuschia, drenching the scenery – from a rural pig farm to the towering skyscrapers – with a sense of artificiality brought on by the country's relentlessly consumerist culture. Old Wang’s (Haoyu Yang) obsession with VR technology drives this home: as long as you look like you’re doing it – whether it's swimming in glorious tropical oceans or getting “the real Spanish experience” while staying put in Shanghai – that’s all that matters.

As well as making her point through the extensive use of colour and light, Yan inflicts a sense of the oddball upon each of her characters, resulting in some slightly obtuse and jarring individuals. There’s the very literal artificiality of Xia Xia, whose life is surrounded by extravagant displays of wealth and not much else, coupled with the setting of the beauty parlour – a business built on aesthetics – where rows of women are lined up to be preened and polished. Meanwhile, Sean, lured by Zazie Beetz’s Angie, engages in a side hustle, utilising Western-ness to sell an idealised image of consumerism to a Chinese market. A sheen of falsity presides over every filmic element, jabbing at the absurdity of a society led by capitalism.

What is to be done about a world that forges a sharp distinction between the wealthy and the poor and prioritises soulless performativity above all else? Yan has claimed Dead Pigs doesn’t offer any straight answers, but is rather an expression of hope. On the basis of the film’s whimsical climax alone, she certainly succeeds in delivering on that sentiment, while also proving she was already one of the most exciting and vibrant filmmakers around long before Birds of Prey.

Dead Pigs is now streaming exclusively on MUBI.

Where to watch

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