The first thing we’re told about Dead Pigs, the feature debut from director Cathy Yan, is that it involves a bunch of lives clashing when a ton of deceased swine suddenly flows down a river. That’s not this movie. There are some dead pigs in a river, but if your interest relies on such a sight, you will be disappointed.
Instead, Dead Pigs offers a mosaic meditation on money and class in modern China. Its large handful of primary characters, whom the film introduces almost too leisurely, are all defined by finances and ultimately come together for the same reasons.
Yan's cast offers a lot of charm, even when they aren’t quite likable. ArArguablyhe head of the ensemble is an older pig farmer, desperately in need of money to pay back gangsters for money he borrowed for a bogus investment. As you can probably expect, he does own some dead pigs. There’s a whole epidemic of pigs dying in China, but this is about as close as they directly affect the plot.
He spends most of the film asking for money from his son, who pretends to be a successful businessman but actually waits tables and lives in an employee dorm, and his successful beautician sister, who could easily help him if she would only sell her childhood home, the last house standing in a massive field of rubble waiting for urban development.
There are other characters involved but the most curious is an American architect working on this land deal whose insecurities lead him to model as rich powerful men at high class events. His inclusion seems to indicate that sometimes status in China can be a result of nothing more than optics.
Dead Pigs has a lot of pieces to move around and some suffer while others are quite heartwarming. The son’s romance with a rich socialite is the hardest to care about, as it's given the least amount of explanation or time. Meanwhile, the sister's noble stand against a powerful company desperate to knock down her house is probably the film's greatest strength. There is sometimes a sense of sitting through stories you don't like just so you can get back to the ones that work better.
Even with its charm, Dead Pigs struggles to escape all the financial misery on display. It’s a hard movie that makes financial survival, much less status climbing, in China seem nearly impossible. Given all that comes before, the film’s sudden happy ending (including a karaoke-style audience sing-along!) seems less a tonal mismatch and more an angry statement of irony, leaving audiences with one superb moment of audacity in a movie that until this point dealt only with pedestrian reality.