TarsTarkas.NET returns for one last CAAMFest 2018 movie review! Even before Cathy Yan got tapped for Birds of Prey I was interested in seeing Dead Pigs, as it was getting some great buzz and people I trust on Twitter were thrilled with it. It’s a story of modern China as it goes through the growing pains of leaping forward to superpower status at light speed. It’s also five different interconnected narratives that are part of a larger picture of unintended consequences and reveal a lifestyle of walls of deception being put up to fake achievements that just haven’t quite happened yet. Pieces with multiple characters and stories can be complicated and sometimes just don’t work at all, but Yan has managed to weave together the parts into a wonderful tapestry, and I hope this is just the beginning of an amazing narrative career.
Old Wang (Yang Hao-Yu) is a pig farmer but his pigs start dying. The bigger problem is he borrowed a bunch of money to invest and got swindled by a fly by night operator. The pigs were his collateral and now the triads he borrowed the money from are angry. His sister Candy Wang (Vivian Wu Jun-Mei) women powered business with mantras and slogans and networking but lives alone with her dog in the house she grew up in. Right now it is a nail house, the last house standing where a modern development project is going in, and she refuses to leave. The desolate location is offset by the house’s bright colors and whimsical decorations, but all of which look quaint compared to the modern new architecture and design going up everywhere else.
Old Wang’s son Wang Zhen (Mason Lee) lives in the city and pretends to be rich and successful, but we know he’s just a waiter and soon even that ends as the restaurant hits financial trouble. He soon turns to being hit by cars and demanding money as compensation. Wang Zhen makes a connection with a rich girl named Xia Cia (Meng Li), who has become jaded with the spoiled rich kid scene, especially after finding out her father is dating one of her friends. She gets drunk and smashes into a shop, Zhen stops by the hospital to return her phone and offers to get her some better food, soon she realizes she can relax more around him than any of her rich kid crew or family.
White architect Sean Landry (David Rysdahl) is the final piece, he designed the construction project that is being held up by Candy’s refusal to move. He feels out of place as no one at his job really tells him anything, treating him with overly elaborate displays for simple ceremonies but otherwise ignoring him. His attempts to solve problems don’t do much the way he hopes (though they do solve problems more through backchannel ways as his employers get ideas from things he says and then work without him!) Out of boredom he joins up with a company that hires him out as fake millionaire or movie star to impress people to buy properties. Zazie Beetz plays the recruiter and I found myself wishing her story was more connected than Sean’s.
Soon pig corpses start turning up in the river. The farmers dumping the bodies as they are unable to sell them and too upset that their livelihoods are destroyed to bother with proper disposal with the authorities. This is based on a real incident. But even though the events are all based on actual things that happen in modern China, the actual narrative is fictional, which even lends more sway to the theme of fakery. The son pretending to be successful, father buying a VR system to show off that he has money, but the money disappearing to a fake business, Xie Xie’s fake persona to fit with the rich crowd, but with Zhen she can be herself. Architect feels like he is a fraud as he doesn’t seem to be doing much and is granted a big title more because of being American, but also pretends to be other successful people for other construction projects that are all modeled after different world architectural features. Layers upon layers of artificiality all built upon each other, but just enough that Sean begins to get the confidence to feel that he belongs.
The Wang family doesn’t talk much to each other but the various problems cause them to start to reconnect. Only Candy doesn’t look outright fake, but she’s clinging to the past and doesn’t seem to want to face the future, even with a successful business. It’s still a fake illusion of the past covering up the now. But the nostalgia isn’t seen as a hindrance, she even becomes a folk hero on the news, people excited she is standing in the way of development, a sort of backlash against all the excess. There is a sense that things are changing again, that beneath all the layers there is still a cultural connection. The different problems combined with the editing and flow of the story came together beautifully and it became the kind of movie that deserved all the buzz it got. Using the pigs incident as a backdrop to explore many other modern issues was a brilliant stroke. Recommended!
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