Review: ‘Dead Pigs,’ Cathy Yan’s dynamic directing debut, lands after three-year wait

Haoyu Yang, from left, Vivian Wu, in robe and curlers, and Mason Lee in the movie "Dead Pigs."

Last year’s “Birds of Prey,” a female-led DC Comics saga starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, introduced director Cathy Yan as a revitalizing force in franchise filmmaking. Yan’s irreverent imagination, though, first crystallized in her China-set debut, “Dead Pigs,” which is finally available stateside three years after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Oft hilarious, the movie’s multi-narrative plot portrays a cross-section of China’s social strata in which nearly all its characters don a deceitful façade of success. A farmer up to his neck in debt, a young man living a lie to appease his father’s expectations, a wealthy girl lacking real human connection and an inept white American man finding professional respect abroad all aggrandize their ragged realities.

Their false appearances in turn mimic the country’s race toward Western standards of progress and modernity, even while poverty is the norm for the majority. Furthermore, Yan notes how whiteness is used as a marketing tool to sell the illusion of refinement and exclusivity to locals. Dotted with humorous absurdity and incisive commentary on class, the brilliantly sinuous screenplay spotlights her wide-ranging directorial aptitudes, such as eliciting performances balanced between over-the-top satire and recognizable humanity from the ensemble.

Integrity amid all the scams in sight — some born out of greed and others from dire necessity — is embodied in beauty saloon owner Candy Wang (a wonderfully obstinate Vivian Wu). Fighting to keep her family’s home from the voracious maw of a development firm bent on building a replica of a Spanish city to house affluent residents, she forces the others to see the sins of their consumerist mentality. Her beloved pigeons back her up.


Interlocked via the consequences of thousands of dead pigs being dumped in rivers, the stand-alone stories are familiar in premise but elevated through the sum of the parts. One can foretell some of the revelations. Nevertheless, in the porcine carcasses floating to the surface of the water rather than sinking into obscurity, Yan points to the individual and collective ugliness that can’t be hidden.

Dynamic in a Hollywood-friendly manner, the film has a deliberately broad tone, but by no means does that detract from its thematic acumen. Watching Yan’s first feature, one can indisputably appreciate why a studio would go after her talent and how compatible her style is with Christina Hodson’s writing for “Birds of Prey.” Thoroughly enjoyable, “Dead Pigs” arises as the origin chapter of a great storyteller and an opportune mosaic of people in a rapidly transforming superpower.

‘Dead Pigs’

In Mandarin and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Playing: Available Feb. 12 on Mubi