Cathy Yan’s zippy comic book pic “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” was one of the last films to open in theaters before COVID shut everything down, but thanks to the wacky world of film acquisitions and distribution, her first feature is only now getting a streaming release. The award-winning “Dead Pigs” takes on weightier subject matter than the aforementioned Harley Quinn vehicle, but it’s just as charmingly off-kilter.
Inspired by real events, the film tells the intersecting stories of several people living in and outside Shanghai, against the backdrop of a strange phenomenon: thousands of dead pigs begin turning up in the river. As the mystery unfolds in the background — we hear updates via diegetic news reports — the characters of “Dead Pigs” go about their lives, contending with the myriad consequences of modernization and real estate development, growing economic disparity, family conflict, and romance.
A struggling pig farmer (Haoyu Yang) has to come up with the money to pay off loan sharks after a bad investment, while Candy (Vivian Wu) refuses to move out of her family home, even though the rest of the neighborhood has been leveled. Shy waiter Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) unexpectedly bonds with rich girl Xia Xia (Meng Li). American expat Sean (David Rysdahl) is a nice-guy rising star at a corporation and, for the most part, isn’t really bothered by the ramifications his work has on ordinary people.
At Sundance 2018, where it premiered, “Dead Pigs” won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting — and it’s easy to see why. Although the film is essentially set in one locale, its themes have a sprawling, global feel. There’s no way that could be pulled off without the incredible cast, who ensure their characters’ experiences resonate deeply, whether the plot takes a turn for the tragic or the surreal. Wu and Li in particular shine as two very different, proud women who are forced to face some unwelcome truths.
As Yan pointed out in an interview with Women and Hollywood, although “Dead Pigs” was made several years ago, it has taken on extra significance in 2021. “A new world is upon us. ‘Parasite’ won Best Picture, #MeToo swept through a dysfunctional Hollywood, and my second feature, ‘Birds of Prey,’ released just before a global pandemic and a summer of intense racial reckoning,” she explained. “Four years after I made “Dead Pigs,” this is another type of reunion. By examining my past, the film has actually become a prescient lens for our present and future — not just in China, but in America and around the world. All around us, the conflict between those who move forward and those who get left behind has never seemed so pronounced.”
This divide is on full display in “Dead Pigs,” and the film suggests it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Let’s hope that also means there are many more sharp, socially-conscious movies like this one to come.
“Dead Pigs” is now available on MUBI.