Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Cathy Yan, 2018)

Dead Pigs posterPigs – they have the best life, according to pig farmer Old Wang (Yang Haoyu). All they do is sleep and eat while hard working folks like him go out of their way to keep them comfortable. To Old Wang, it doesn’t seem fair but, ironically enough, he seems to have forgotten the heavy price a prize pig pays for its short life of “luxury”. Nevertheless, all his hard work is about to go down the drain in the debut film from Cathy Yan, Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Hǎi Chàng Fú Chéng). Loosely inspired by the infamous Huangpu River incident, Dead Pigs is a decidedly cheerful satire of modern China’s capitalist revolution and the many changes, good and bad, it has wrought.

When all the pigs in China suddenly start dropping dead, it presents a series of problems for your average pig farmer like Old Wang. With everyone on high alert and no clear indication of what is causing the strange phenomenon, no one is buying pork and getting rid of the carcasses in the “official” way is costly, bothersome, and will alert the attention of the authorities. Therefore, pretty much everyone starts tipping their dead pigs in the river which, besides being unsightly, is also a significant risk to public health.

Old Wang, however, has other problems. When we first meet him, he’s become obsessed with the cutting edge art of VR technology because it feels just like the real thing, delighting in pretending to go swimming when he could actually just go swimming outside if only he hadn’t been polluting the river with pig carcasses. Not content with virtual delusions, he’s also got himself into debt by “investing” in a scheme which turned out to be a scam and lost him all his savings. In debt to loan sharks, Old Wang decides to ask his sister, Candy (Vivian Wu) – a beautician with an upbeat, inspirational marketing campaign, for help. Candy, however, is in the middle of a nasty dispute with a local property developer which has bought up all the other properties in the area to build a brand new housing complex bizarrely inspired by classic Spanish cathedral Sagrada Família and designed by American architect Sean (David Rysdahl) who has ended up in China in flight from failure at home. Old Wang considers asking his son, Zhen (Mason Lee), whom he thinks has a good job in the city, for the money to pay the gangsters, but Zhen is just a waiter (in an upscale bar/restaurant specialising in pork) and is too ashamed to tell his dad he can’t help. Meanwhile, Zhen has also fallen for disillusioned rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng) who is currently rethinking her elitist lifestyle.

Snapping at the property developers, Candy laments that it’s all “money, money, money” and resents that they can’t see the various practical and sentimental reasons she might not want to move, assuming she’s just an old battle-axe out for more money. In the world of rich kids like Xia Xia, money is indeed all that matters – having the flashiest outfits, jewellery, cars and accessories while being seen at the trendiest bars and restaurants on the arm of the handsomest companions the elite has to offer. No one seems to care very much about how they treat others because every offence can be paid for. Xia Xia, though she perhaps suspected it before, learns the hard way when she winds up in hospital and none of her many “friends” bother to visit her, preferring to send expensive gifts instead.

Meanwhile, Wang Zhen and his dad are two guys left behind by rapid modernisation. Too ashamed to tell his father he couldn’t cut it in the city, Zhen eventually takes to deliberately crashing into oncoming vehicles with his bicycle in the hope of extracting compensation – willingly submitting himself to a system in which money has become a license to do wrong for those who can afford it. American architect Sean feels much the same as he makes plain in an impassioned speech to Old Wang in which he insists that no one has the right to call him stupid or to make out he isn’t good enough for the brave new world they are making. Sean, having ended up in China in an attempt to escape these same feelings of inadequacy and failure in his home country, finds a new niche for himself, uncomfortable as it is, as a professional Westerner for hire in series of bizarre publicity stunts managed by a talent agency specialising in such rarefied fare. 

Yet more than the greed, selfishness, and inhumanity the cruelty of capitalism has engendered, it’s the loss of community that seems to really sting. Candy wants to hold on to her childhood home as a physical expression of a long lost neighbourhood and now absent family. Tellingly, the song she’s always singing, which is later reprised as a community wide karaoke number, is a classic track by Teresa Teng known as “I Only Care About You” in its Mandarin version but originally released in Japanese as “Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase” which literally means “surrender yourself to the flow of time”. You can’t stop progress – perhaps it’s a mistake to cling on to the tangible in a world constantly in flux when what really matters has always been close at hand. The message seems to be, salvage what you can but get out of the way of the bulldozer before it buries you too. Sparkling with whimsy and filled with impromptu song and dance, Dead Pigs is a delightfully surreal examination of a changing nation in which goodness and empathy eventually win out (to a point at least) against the overwhelming forces of rampant capitalist expansion.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s I Only Care About You

Original Japanese version (Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase)

Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Qiu Sheng, 2018)

Suburban Birds poster 1Everything is collapsing in the strangely entropic world of Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Jiāo de Niǎo). Time and memory conspire to confuse and confound as man-made structures devour the natural pleasures of human existence, stepping in time with China’s rapid urban development in a hasty march towards a fractured future. Our hero dreams of finding rare avian life, but remains shackled to the earth as an agent of both destruction and creation – literally “engineering” the future while attempting to repair the mistakes of the past.

Xiahao (Mason Lee) is currently working for a government-backed team of surveyors trying to solve a massive subsidence problem which has rendered a brand new estate unfit for habitation. The subsidence problem, besides being dangerous and apparently unpredictable, is also expensive – the city is footing the bill for putting an entire neighbourhood up in a hotel while essential works on a new subway line needed to serve it are also on hold. The engineers are doing their best, but they seem ill equipped to investigate and feel both under resourced and under appreciated. The youngest member of the team, Ant (Deng Jing), is even thinking of quitting because he gets all the rubbish jobs and his girlfriend thinks there’s no future in his career seeing as there’s relatively little scope for advancement save becoming the “boss” which doesn’t actually pay very much. In between drinking, arguing, and investigating, Xiahao strikes up a relationship with one of the evictees – the pretty hairdresser “Swallow” (Huang Lu), to whom he eventually offers to show the elusive birds.

Meanwhile, a second tale takes over when Xiahao investigates an abandoned school and discovers a diary written by another Xiahao (Gong Zihan) which details the various adventures of a group of adolescent friends. Whether in reality or just in the older Xiahao’s imagination, the kids from the book echo people in his adult life from the members of his engineering team to the two female evictees he encounters at the hotel. The younger Xiahao could perhaps even be an echo of the older one’s real or imagined childhood – the aesthetics are distinctly ‘90s but the adventures are infinitely timeless. Little Xiahao and his friends communicate in person and go outside to play, fully existing in tune with their surroundings and as much part of the natural world as the “suburban birds” looking for a perch in a land under permanent construction.

Yet modern China somehow works its way into their idyllic world. The kids play in the ruins of broken broken buildings, are literally injured by the ruptured landscape, and finally begin to disappear one by one. Eventually the streams cross – the young Xiahao and the other boys come across the older Xiahao and his team dreaming away under greying skies while their optical level looks silently on at nothing. The kids stick a piece of chewing gum on the lens – an act which is both intensely irritating for the slumbering adults and a literal proof of their material existence within the same plane if not definitively the same time.

Xiahao’s dreams, as he recounts them to his bored coworkers, revolve around a terrible gushing of water as a powerful drill inexplicably turns to liquid. The loudmouth party man tagging along to chivvy the crew towards a completion of the paperwork even in the absence of a safe and workable solution, has an appropriately bawdy theory but the dream itself is later echoed by the boys who find themselves charged with carrying a large butt of water through their school until its weight gets the better of them. Xiahao is convinced that leakage lies at the heart of the subsidence problem, that shoddy workmanship and bad weather have conspired to ruin the ambitions of human engineering. Public safety is not such a concern as faith in local government. Not only has an all encompassing hunger for progress robbed the land of its beauty but has begun to erode itself from the underneath leaving only a perilous fall to the chasms below.

Xiahao dreams of a more innocent time. His ringtone alarm features bird song which is either so real you can’t tell the difference, or the ironically named Swallow has never actually heard it before outside of the movies. He wants to find the elusive “suburban birds” but turns to the internet to do so, eventually wading back into into a dream in which children play freely among the greenery while singing semi-ominous communist songs about how the future belongs to the young. A riddle besets them all – what is both long and short, fast and slow, and whole yet may be divided into many parts? The answer seems to be time, or perhaps memory, hinting at the way past haunts the future as a squatting tenant of the present which can neither speak nor stay silent. Forgetting, like the water pouring in through the inexpertly poured concrete of a half constructed subway tunnel, erodes the foundations of conscious thought. You can’t build a future on emptiness, and if there’s nowhere for the birds to sit what sort of future is it anyway?


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Qiu Sheng from Locarno