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Multifaceted Humans: Close-Up on "Dead Pigs"

In her debut feature, Cathy Yan colorfully develops characters with care and goes to unexpected places.
Elizabeth Horkley
Close-up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Cathy Yan's Dead Pigs is exclusively showing on MUBI starting February 12, 2021 in the Debuts series.
Eight years ago in March, pig carcasses began to bubble up in the Huangpu River in Shanghai. After 16,000 carcasses had been fished out of the water, the Guardian ran a post–mortem piece salaciously titled “Rivers of blood: the dead pigs rotting in China's water supply.”
Before Chinese-American director Cathy Yan started making films she worked as a reporter in Hong Kong. She didn’t cover the “2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident,” as Wikipedia coined it, but as trained observers do, she filed it away to memory. Her 2018 debut feature—bluntly titled Dead Pigs—imagines the circumstances that would compel hundreds, if not thousands, of people to discard potentially diseased pig corpses into a city’s drinking stores. “I think I came at it from a journalistic angle,” Yang said in a 2018 interview. “But then I wanted to get behind the headline: Okay, so this happened and that's crazy, gruesome and bizarre, but what is the human story behind this?”
Yan’s ensemble comedy-drama toys with a “ripped from the headlines” conceit to slyly critique moviemaking tropes: specifically, rote characterization. But far from a sendup, Dead Pigs gestures toward the potential of greater honesty on screen to spawn films that are kinder to their subjects and more deserving of an audiences’ investment.
Wang is the first character in Dead Pigs that we’re introduced to, at a tech showroom where he impulsively buys a headset. Traveling home to a ramshackle, urban pig farm, he finds one of his stock dead. His face flickers, the precariousness of his livelihood flashing before his mind’s eye—or is it buyer’s remorse? This particular animal will end up belly-up in the river due to a confluence of poor choices. But what of the other 16,000 pigs that were fished out of the Huangpu River in 2013? 
"There were just nothing but pigs in the river, but the individual farmers themselves didn’t realize that everyone else was [dumping the pigs into the river],” Yan explained in another 2018 chat, continuing: “So there was this strange network effect where you have your own personal point of view or experience, and then only later do you realize this all comes together, like every human in the world is more connected than we realize."
A less ambitious film might have focused on the motives of five money-strapped farmers like Wang, all of whom are guilty of the same dirty deed. But Dead Pigs is less interested in making a point about a singular subset than it is in exploring how dueling societal forces—modernization and tradition; status and station—are felt by individuals at every rung of society. Yan’s film shines in its portrayal of Shanghai as a pearlescent oyster for the rich; a slippery ring for bottom feeders. But Dead Pigs is also successful in driving home the point that financial insecurity is universal.
Wang is easy enough to grok as a ne'er-do-well. But the next two characters we meet in Dead Pigs defy simple classification. Candy, Wang’s sister, is a janglingly accessorized salon owner with crimped hair to match her always-in-tow poodle’s. When we first meet her, she’s overseeing her staff in a militaristic morning chant of self-affirmation. A cynical moviegoer might perceive “madame boss” as hell on heels, and read her decorous behavior to her staff and patrons as superficial. But Candy’s no Miranda Priestly—she leaves her work at the salon. Her home, meanwhile, is a nail-house: the last structure (barely) standing in a rubblescape razed for development.
This eventually puts her at odds with Sean, a young-ish American architect who’s leading the development of an apartment complex slated for construction on Candy’s land. Skinny, white, and prone to waxing poetic about his humble upbringing in Minnesota, he, too, initially presents as disingenuous. This judgement deteriorates as we follow him out of an introductory meeting. He settles into a private car, plugs in a pair of earbuds, and sighs exhaustedly. Audio from a meditation app narrates: “My life is beginning to improve. I believe in myself.” He watches through the car window as the cityscape—a rush of steel beams, cranes, and high-rises—flies by. The city seems to grow vocal chords: “I am growing every day. I am talented. I am important. I will succeed.”
When Sean and Candy meet, tension deflates amid a mutual recognition of decency. Instead of coming to blows—as Candy has with Sean’s colleagues—she shows him her pet pigeon coop. Thanks to Yan’s disarming characterization, we half-expect Sean to “do the right thing” and halt construction plans. But Yan isn’t interested in valorizing his type, nor any others. “I did want to play around with the idea of subverting the 'white savior' Hollywood trope,” the director says, continuing: “Sean is certainly not that, though I hope he does incite some amount of empathy, nevertheless. I don't think the characters in the film fall under just heroes or villains—most humans don't either.”
Yan succeeds in breathing life into these lofty concepts by drawing from real people and phenomena she encountered as a girl growing up in China, and later, a reporter covering it. She’s characterized Candy as “...that kind of very sassy, Chinese woman that I feel like we often don’t see much in films, but especially any film that could make it in the West.” She also cites Wu Ping—a woman from Chongqing who became famous for refusing to leave her home under pressure from developers—as an inspiration.
Scenes that show Candy home alone, cooking, cleaning, doing aerobics, watching old movies, and tending to her pigeons imbue her with an inner life that’s, indeed, not often seen on screen. In these sequences, one wonders if depictions of women “of a certain age” enjoying the creature comforts of home could constitute a variation of the Bechdel test: “Is she home alone? Is she crying? Is it because she’s living in fear of a man? Or in want of one?”
Sean, too, upends expectations in thought-provoking ways. He’s acutely aware of the privileged status his complexion affords him in Shanghai, and following him through the course of Dead Pigs is bearing witness to his palpable sense of imposter syndrome proving justified at every turn. When he first offers to talk to Candy in-person, his colleagues erupt in applause (“I’m just going to talk to her,” he says softly). A pretty woman (played by Zazie Beets) strikes up a conversation at a cafe only to recruit him for a “modeling agency” that hires westerners to drum up interest in local business ventures. And a run-in with an old classmate suggests that he might have emigrated due to meager professional prospects in the U.S. “Sean is like many ex-pats I knew from my days reporting in China,” Yan says. Like China’s idiosyncratic nail-houses, she adds, “The recruitment of white ex-pats, especially white men, to ‘model’ as a white face is real, too.”
Rounding out the core cast are Xia Xia, a disillusioned rich girl whose CEO dad dates her friends, and Zhen, Wang’s son: a busboy with a heart of gold. Their against-the-odds romance is  Dead Pigs’ most predictable storyline. But the eschewal of formula that’s established at the onset of the film and its persistence throughout beckons closer examination of the star-crossed lovers’ dynamic. The typical “guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl back” milestones are there, but the generous lead–up to scenes we’re primed to expect makes them feel natural—even new. For example: during a sparkly night on the town, Xia Xia tells Zhen of her intention to “join a crew” and become a professional dancer. She mentions nonchalantly that she might go to America, and busts a few unimpressive moves before asking him to dance. We’re too fixated on her pretensions to notice immediately that a rom-com rite is taking place.
In the film’s climactic scene, all five characters congregate outside Candy’s home as she faces off against a bulldozer in the pouring rain. Wang, self–penitent for having signed away the deed in secret (the ne'er-do-well isn’t spared from being shown as such in Dead Pigs) slaps himself to coax her down. “What an exciting turn of events! Like a true Hollywood movie!” a news anchor gushes as clouds part and a rainbow appears. Candy begins to sing as she descends, and a group of gathered onlookers join as karaoke lyrics appear on screen. In a film with less affection for its characters, such an ending would register as ludicrous or mocking. But in Dead Pigs, the Hollywood ending feels earned.
Yan’s next project—2020’s Birds of Prey—would seem to signify a temporary surrender of creative latitude. But Yan’s influence can be seen in relatable details that humanize the DC comic characters. Harley Quinn monologues about her love of breakfast sandwiches in one sequence; she shops for groceries in another. At one point, her landlord—a kindly Asian restaurant owner—sells her out with a shrug. (Rather than reacting with characteristic fury, Harley seems reined in by a recognition that she is, to be fair, a tenant from hell.)
This insistence on authenticity was hard-won. Of casting Rosie Perez in a lead role, Yan recalled to Vanity Fair: “She was a little above the age range, but I really fought for her.” Writing about the news-making decision to trade Harley Quinn’s short shorts for a more practical wardrobe, the same article cued up her rationale by opining: “While that choice may seem like an obvious repudiation of the male gaze that dominated Quinn’s original onscreen debut, Yan offers a more, ahem, directorial explanation.”
That “directorial explanation” is a logical one that nonetheless seemed to bemuse the writer: “She’s without the Joker, she’s no longer the girlfriend, and what does that say?” Yan said. “If she’s just on her own, what clothes did she choose to wear?”
Yan’s first features are subtly subversive in their eschewal of tropes. Dead Pigs, in its favoring of ordinary, human interactions over narrative pomp, leads to unexpected places that shouldn't be unexpected at all. Her characters behave like multifaceted humans, and the pleasure in watching Yan’s debut feature is akin to the feeling of meeting someone new who you think you're going to like.

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