‘Dead Pigs’ shines a light on the doubled-edged sword of Chinese modernization

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Director Cathy Yan is best known by audiences for her work in 2020’s “Birds of Prey,” the spin-off sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad” starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, yet her directorial debut in 2018’s “Dead Pigs” is just as captivating and visually impressive. 

I’m sure you are wondering: Why would a newspaper review a film that premiered three years ago? The truth of the matter is the film has had an extensive journey following its initial premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Despite its glowing reviews at Sundance, the film took three years to be released to the international public, with its release on the streaming service MUBI on Feb. 11, 2021. 

“Dead Pigs” is set in modern-day Shanghai, and is based off of the real-life instance where 16,000 pig carcasses were found in the Huangpu River on the banks of the city after impoverished farmers could not pay to adequately dispose of them. 

While that introduction probably did not give you the best first impression of the film, I can assure you that the movie heavily features the bright neon of the sprawling Chinese metropolis, juxtaposing the extravagance of the rapidly modernizing city with the extreme poverty of the majority of its people. “Dead Pigs” follows a multi-narrative plotline, telling the intertwining tales of six members of Shanghai society, all representing different worlds within one society.  

The film satirizes appearance versus reality in the world of wealth, as a seemingly successful salon owner (Vivian Wu) fights off developers to save her rickety ancestral home, while her brother (Haoyu Yang) is ridden in debt after borrowing from ruthless loan sharks and nephew (Mason Lee) pretends to be lavishly wealthy despite his job as a waiter who in turn meets an actual wealthy heiress (Meng Li) who is constantly miserable. All of this takes place while the developing company, Golden Happiness, attempts to seize Shanghai property from poor pig farmers for the development of a high-end, high-rise condo complex that rips off the iconic Spanish cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. To convince the Chinese people that this is a good thing, the company puts an “exotic” looking white American (David Rysdah) as the face of the company to commend China for modernizing by Western standards. 

The film’s primary language of dialogue is Mandarin Chinese with a handful of scenes in English along with English subtitles throughout. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yan admitted she was worried that the film’s language would prevent its acceptance by the wider international audiences. However, Bong Joon-ho’s historic win of Korean-language film “Parasite” for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, proved that there is a market for non-English films, paving the way for the international release of “Dead Pigs” this February. 

While I admit that movies like “Parasite” and “Roma” were only my first experiences with non-English films, I certainly hope that they are indicators of a growing trend of a more diverse and multi-lingual cinema. I find that stories being told in their native language enhances the dialogue and does a better job of showcasing the life and culture of those it depicts. Frankly, I also find it enlightening to be exposed to international films, as they provide a window into the lived experiences of those often not captured in the American entertainment industry. 

In my opinion, this film is a must-watch as it builds a very interesting satire around the world’s emerging superpower from the point of view of the people on the ground.  

Rating: 4/5 

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