Social Satire and Family Drama in Modern China
Cathy Yan’s “Dead Pigs” is made up of intertwining stories of those living through social modernization in Shanghai. We see the stories of a man in financial trouble in the wake of the death of his pig stock and an investment that went wrong, a woman who refuses to leave her family home that is being destroyed for gentrification purposes, and a troubled young man in love with a wealthy woman and they both fail to understand their different worlds. As the stories progress we see how these character’s stories come together interpersonally, and within the city undergoing change.
Dead Pigs opens with Wang (Haoyu Yang) buying a virtual reality set. He is mesmerized by the abilities that technology has to immerse people. He is then met with a pack of dead pigs that have died mysteriously. The characters reflect the growth of Shanghai and its and it becomes clear from the onset that the character’s involvement in the new world is limited.
On the same day Wang makes his purchase, a swine plague strikes his village. The local river is soon infested with hundreds of dumped pig carcasses. Wang can’t repay his debts and falls prey to ruthless local thugs.
Wang’s sister, Candy, (Vivian Wu) is the successful owner of a beauty salon. Her motto is “There are no ugly women. Only lazy ones!” and this also is a slogan for a China where failure is stigmatized and success must constantly be performed openly. Candy clashes with her bungling brother over his haphazard business affairs.
Wang’s mistakes show Candy’s own crisis. Candy may be an image of icy perfection, but she is a sentimental at heart.
She holds onto to ramshackle family home. When she’s pressured by developers, the stage is set for Candy’s showdown against progress.
Director Yan looks at some moral complexities of late-capitalism in China. In a parallel thread, Wang’s son, Zhen (Mason Lee), barely makes it, working as a waiter at a restaurant in Shanghai. Rather than tell his father the truth about his job, he pretends to be successful. He then falls for a young, lonely socialite, Xia Xia (Li Meng).
Zhen and Xia Xia’s quasi-romance never touches on class difference or social status in any meaningful way since Yan gives us a fantasy about the rich helping the poor. Yan doesn’t say much condemning the developers’ urge to imitate. The new China, like the old Wang’s virtual reality, is a puzzling simulation. The characters aren’t as worried about aesthetic or cultural claims to authenticity as they are about finding a place in the new pecking order.
The film follows the effects of a singular event across different strata in modern-day China.