Review: ‘Dead Pigs’

28 February 2021 / by Lauren Baldwin
Dead Pigs
Modernization gets the absurdist treatment in Cathy Yan’s labyrinthian ‘Dead Pigs’



Inspired by the true story of the discovery of thousands of pig carcasses found in the Huangpu River in 2013, Dead Pigs serves as an unconventional commentary on modern-day Shanghai.

Before the release of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) last year, Chinese-American director Cathy Yan made her debut with the comedy-drama film, Dead Pigs. Two years after its premiere at Sundance, the film has finally received a North American release on the arthouse streaming platform, MUBI. For the last few years, Dead Pigs has been a mystery despite Yan rising to prominence with her take on Harley Quinn and the DC Extended Universe, as well as being the first Asian woman to direct a major Hollywood superhero film. Despite it being three years since the completion of the film, it has been worth the wait, as it serves as a solid dramedy depicting the fast-paced urbanization of modern-day Shanghai. 

Following in the footsteps of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Dead Pigs tells the story of an array of interconnected characters. It follows Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), a salon owner who refuses to let her family home be demolished by property development company Golden Happiness, her brother Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), an unlucky pig farmer who goes to extremes to deal with his severe financial troubles and his son Zhen (Mason Lee), a busboy who falls for a wealthy but lonely socialite, Xia Xia (Meng Li). The film also follows Sean (David Rysdahl), an American expatriate who works for Golden Happiness, who side hustles as an exotic foreigner model for public events. 

Courtesy: MUBI

Dead Pigs’ mix of family drama and absurdist comedy work well to tell the stories of these characters while also criticizing and satirizing China’s rapid “western-style” modernization. At first, the film seems too overstuffed with ideas and messy narratives that it can be hard to follow, but when it reaches its second act, things immediately become clear. The themes of capitalism and commercialism become more evident and it is made clear that this is a film driven by themes. These themes are then present everywhere in Dead Pigs, but unfortunately, the film can never quite sell the viewer on them, as the ending seems to get a little bit lost and contradictory to the ideas that were brought forward in the second act. However visually, the film is a delight, as its vibrant shots of the Shanghai nightlife work to contrast the warm, realistic tone of the blue-painted Wang family home that stands out in the dreary, rural area of Shanghai. Dead Pigs also serves as a true form of artistic expression for Yan, as it draws similarities to Birds of Prey through its flashy colours and random musical numbers, which can now be considered as a Cathy Yan staple. 

Dead Pigs is an ambitious debut, as it tells a strange but necessary tale of class divide and urbanization in modern-day Shanghai that is worth the watch. 

‘Dead Pigs’ is now available to stream on MUBI Canada.