It is an act of supreme hubris to use an iconic cathedral over a century in-the-building and as yet unfinished as the model for a proposed mega-mega-housing complex. The Chinese ersatz Sagrada Família is fictional, but ethos of hyper-development behind it is very true to life. So is the 2013 Huangpu River Incident. At that time, more than 16,000 deceased swine were fished out of the river near Shanghai, after a mysterious epidemic swept through subsistence pork farms. The starkly demarcated worlds of the real estate developing haves and the pig-farming have-nots will intersect and overlap in Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs, which premiered last night at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Old Wang is one of those pig farmers, whose stock suddenly died. It happened at a terrible time for him. He thought he had invested in a promising start-up, but it was really just a scam. Unfortunately, his debt to the loan sharks is still due in two weeks’ time. Old Wang had hoped his son Wang Zhen could help. He had led his father to believe he had made good in Shanghai, but he is really just living hand-to-mouth as a busboy. Nevertheless, he manages to befriend and subsequently fall in love with Xia Xia, a fuerdai party girl.
The Wang father and son have their own problems, so they do not notice when Zhen’s hairdresser aunt, Candy Wang because an internet cult hero for refusing to sell out to the shady conglomerate, thereby putting a hold on the Sagrada Família project. This is particularly bad news for the development’s American architect, Sean Landry, who was hoping the ostentatious complex would restart his stalled career.
The corporate thugs will harass Aunt Candy, the street toughs will dog Old Wang, and the entitled brats will bully the hard-working Zhen. Their stories intertwine with those Xia Xia and Landry, but in organic, unforced ways. In fact, it is pretty remarkable how much contemporary cultural observation and criticism is jammed into two hours and ten minutes, including the wide-spread practice of accident fraud and the government’s blockage of Facebook. Yet, Dead Pigs still managed to pass the Party censors, maybe because they were distracted by the musical numbers. You read that right, there are two showstoppers (technically, one might be more of a cheerleading drill) that are worthy of Bollywood.
Yan also has the added dazzle of Vivian Wu’s star power. She has appeared in classics like Beauty Remains, The Pillow Book, and The Last Emperor, but Candy Wang might just be the role of her career. She is brassy, but dignified and vulnerable—and yes, she sings.
Vivien Li Meng and Mason Lee are also terrific as Xia Xia and Wang Zhen. There is genuine chemistry between them, but also real tension. This is nothing like your typical poor boy-rich girl rom-com. In their respective spheres, class boundaries are not supposed to be traversed. Both Yan’s well-developed script and David Rysdahl’s humanizing performance prevent the nebbish Landry from becoming an expat cliché, while Zazie Beetz steals a few scenes as Angie, a western events planner, who offers him some decidedly odd moonlighting gigs. At times, Yang Haoyu pitches Old Wang rather broadly, but his scenes with his son are pretty devastating.
In many ways, Dead Pigs is like the novel of today’s China Tom Wolfe has yet to write. It is bitingly satirical, trenchantly observant, and features a cast of characters that runs the entire social gamut. It is also deeply rooted in actual, documented events. Very highly recommended, Dead Pigs screens again this afternoon (1/20), Thursday (1/25), and Friday (1/26) in Park City and Monday (1/22) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.