Debut films can be timid, copycat things. Not so — and how — Dead Pigs, the wildly original first feature of director Cathy Yan. In fact, Yan has already released another movie — comic book romp Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie. This one was made back in 2018, however, left on the shelf until now by distributors, clearly not the quickest to catch on.
Yan is Chinese-American, her childhood divided between the two countries. The film was set and shot in Shanghai, edited in her New York living room. On screen, the mixed-up energy is everywhere. Eminence grise of Chinese cinema Jia Zhangke acts as executive producer; the freewheeling Paul Thomas Anderson might be a more useful reference. The spark of surrealism is all Yan’s own.
“China is the future and the future is now,” blares a sales presentation early on, and you brace for the overfamiliar. Unbrace. Instead, Yan delivers a grandly networked black comedy, a giddy joyride through a city where no one is ever quite what they seem. A newly wealthy pig farmer buys a lavish VR headset; in an unrelated stroke of bad luck, his animals are mysteriously laid waste. (The film takes its cue from the real 2013 case of 16,000 pig carcasses ending up in the Huangpu River.)
Nearby, the go-ahead owner of a beauty salon returns to a ramshackle home amid a sea of rubble — a lonely “nail house” she refuses to sell to developers. (She is played by the excellent Vivian Wu.) Their architect may be the biggest surprise of all, one among various American ex-pats who greet each other in this new global hub as if arrived through the back of a wardrobe.
Not every idea pays off, but another is always coming. Slowly the dots are joined, the plot thickened by two class-cross’d young lovers and a debt to gangsters. Above, the Shanghai skyline glitters like a video game. Below, the corpses of pigs bob down the river, a riddle to keep us guessing to the end.
On Mubi from February 12