Writer-director Cathy Yan’s playfully cynical “Dead Pigs” is bucket of cold water dumped on Chinese avarice at the start of The Chinese Century.
Before “Birds of Prey,” Yan cooked up a Chinese satire painted in broad strokes with a tiny brush, cute but with jagged edges that nick and draw blood from both East and West. The film views “acquisitiveness” as a Western export, and casts a jaded eye on China’s runaway development and the cultural corruption that come from the One Party State’s “version” of “Greed is Good” capitalism.
Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) is a jocular, happy-go-lucky pig farmer in the provinces whom we meet as he tries out, and buys, a VR gaming set-up in the Big City. Back home, he impresses the neighbors and extended family, who all wonder, “How can you afford this?” (in Mandarin with English subtitles).
Maybe he can’t. When one of his pigs sickens and dies, his house-of-cards collapses on him, and the dominoes of his family, neighbors and region tumble out in all directions.
It’s not just that “Nobody wants a dead pig.” It’s that all the pigs are dying. And the Chinese love their pork.
Mason Lee is Wang Zhen, a downcast waiter in a swank restaurant in the Big City. Bourgeois bros and bling-loving ladies alike abuse him. He just has to take it and serve the House Specialty — roast suckling pig — to every party that asks for it.
Beautiful, rich and bratty Xia Xia (Meng Li) is another jerk-in-a-skirt who gets so drunk that she forgets her bedazzled cell phone in the restaurant, and then runs over a fruit stand on the way home, ending up in the hospital.
Wang Zhen tracks her down and returns her phone. “Where’s my charger?” as if he found that, too, and “I’m hungry — get me some dumplings” is how she thanks him.
When Old Wang talks about “Just more bad luck,” he’s not just talking about his pigs and his fly-by-night investment losses. He might be talking about Zhen, his son. Only he doesn’t know the kid is broke because Zhen lies about his “house” and his big shot job and never says “No” when Dad asks for money.
Then there’s Boss Lady Candy Wang (Vivian Wu, our star). She leads her crew through morning cheerleading exercises before unleashing them on customers in her beauty salon.
“There are no UGLY women,” is her company motto. “Only LAZY ones.”
Candy pep talks and glad-hands the ladies, then she’s back to her old two story house, the family home for generations but the last near-ruin standing in a vast, recently-cleared urban wasteland. She is Old Wang’s sister and will not move, even if Golden Happy Corp is ready to build this replica of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, surrounding it with high-rise condo towers.
That’s how architect Sean (David Rysdahl) comes into the story. He’s moved to China to take advantage of the runaway construction there, and of the fact that many a Chinese enterprise seeks out a Western face to march out for investors to inspire confidence in the project.
The money backing such efforts may be backed by oligarchs and the Chinese military. But put some random (typically) white guy on your board or stand him up at a press conference, and all looks legit.
Candy Yang’s obstinance threatens Sean’s project. But maybe he’s not all-in on that, either. Maybe he’s not exactly what he passes himself off as. That’s why he’s open to the pushy, gorgeous recruiter (Zazie Beetz of “Atlanta,” “Joker” And “Deadpool 2”) who offers him “modeling” work doing basically what he’s doing as an “architect” — showing up as a Western face at ribbon cuttings and the like.
Everybody’s tangled up in everybody else’s business before the pigs start dying. And then they do, and as the rivers fill with carcasses and the news media gets wind of it and the web of affluence and artifice starts to unravel — at least for the Wangs and those who know them.
The laughs come from the confrontation between “types” — gullible get-rich-quick Old Wang, “Dragon Lady” stubborn Candy and hapless Zhen, who figures the only way to raise cash for Dad this time is extorting money out of motorists he lets run over him.
The corruption that runs through the picture is right there, out in the open. So many fake accidents that no motorist questions the act of extortion, because no one wants to run afoul of the police. Wang dumps his drove of dead pigs into the river, but he’s just the first to do that. Let the Westerner deal with the intransigent, TV-protesting Candy. It’ll play better and push responsibility for whatever happens on him and her.
And the over-riding joke is that no one is who they seem to be in this “The future is Chinese” tale. Old Wang isn’t the success he tries to come off as, nor is his son. Candy is as go-go-modern as any of them, but by God she’s not giving up the home where she keeps pigeons and reminders of the entire family’s past.
Xia Xia may be bougie, but she tries to show a conscience.
Sean? He’s just here for the hustle, ensuring “It’s a MALL world after all,” a “success” in China where he’d likely be unemployable in his chosen field back home.
Aside from the formidable Wu (“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”), “Dead Pigs” isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. And the objects of the satire are just subtle enough to pass muster with potential censors.
But as it wends its way towards a very Mira-Nair-in-Bollywood sing-along finale, Cathy Yan gives us a picture of a culture on the cusp of a bulldozer-and-bankruptcy reckoning, a nation hitting that wall all developing countries do when they first ask, “Is this all there is?”
She’s made a droll Chinese satire that stings rather than scalds.
MPA Rating: unrated, some violence, profanity
Cast: Vivian Wu, Mason Lee, Meng Li, Haoyu Yang, David Rysdahl and Zazie Beetz
Credits: Scripted and directed by Cathy Yan. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:02