In the Chinese zodiac, the happy-go-lucky pig stands for good fortune and wealth. So an inexplicable epidemic that decimates the porcine population in a developing part of China still heavily reliant on pig farming, could be symbolically as well as literally disastrous, and it provides Cathy Yan’s sprawling, bouncing, jaunty debut with its darkest images. Along the wide river that flows sluggishly to the nearby city, thousands of discarded pig corpses keep bobbing to the surface like troublesome metaphors. But despite tracking with forensic rigor the domino effects of this sudden aporkalypse, the surprise is the light sureness of Yan’s touch. “Dead Pigs” is delightfully uneven, eagerly see-sawing between screwy and serious, occasionally even daring to be ditzy — not a quality usually associated with Sixth Generation maestro and executive producer Jia Zhangke. If anything, Yan’s film, with its dancing girls, pigeon-fancying beauticians, Westerners-on-the-make and spontaneous musical numbers, is an antidote to China’s weightier arthouse output, settling the stomach after too much stolid social realism, effervescent as an alka-seltzer.
But its lightness does not mean it’s lightweight. When it comes to commentary about contemporary China, traditionalism vs. modernity really is the Big Top, and everything else a sideshow. “Dead Pigs” is as DNA-bound to this duality as any more punishing work of cultural interrogation. Still Yan, born in China and raised in the U.S., gives us a one-foot-in/one-foot-out perspective that can be critical but not despairing, and fond but not blind to her birth nation’s struggles and foibles. The eminently relatable strivers, wasters, dreamers and scoundrels who live here are simply running alongside the tracks of China’s runaway-train economic expansion, trying to hop aboard. They do relatable things like fail and lie and watch “Step Up.” The people are as little exoticized as the landscapes they move through: anonymous, anywhere-malls, flimsy corporate offices, neon nightclubs where vacuous frenemies trade barbs over cocktails and dingy villages just beyond the edge of the urban sprawl, where bulldozers trundle through building sites.
There’s an incongruous old-style wooden house, painted bright turquoise, sitting in the middle of one of those sites. It belongs to Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), the hardnosed owner of a local beauty salon who won’t sell to developers, led by ambitious American fish-out-of-water architect Sean (David Rysdahl). Candy’s brother (Yang Haoyu) is one of the unfortunately afflicted pig farmers, so he’s anxious for her to sell the family’s home so he can get a share of the proceeds and pay off the gangsters he’s in hock to.
He’s certainly no model of fiscal prudence, which makes the fronting his son, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, son of Ang), does for his benefit all the more pitiable. Zhen pretends he’s a success in the city when actually he waits tables in a suckling pig restaurant, where he falls for brittle rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng), who drives home drunk one night and hits a watermelon stand. Zhen visits Xia Xia in the hospital and a tentative relationship begins. Meanwhile Sean, who has been approached by a “model scout” (Zazie Beetz) and now moonlights as a VIP-Westerner-for-hire at corporate events, tries to turn Candy to his way of thinking. In a piquant reversal of the popular notion of America as the land of opportunity, China is Sean’s Wild West, his New Frontier, and out here he believes he can reinvent himself as the success he never was at home.
Despite its populous state-of-the-nation cast, and spaghetti junction storylines, “Dead Pigs” is mercifully free of the pomposity that can sink the interlocking-narrative format. It has a car accident plot point, but this is not Paul Haggis’ “Crash.” It’s an Altman without the acid or “Magnolia” without the mournfulness. And when the melange threatens to bake unevenly over the course of its peppy 130 minute runtime, Yan can return to her ace in the hole. As Candy, Wu gets to give the most exaggerated but also most electric performance in a very strong ensemble. With her ghastly catechism, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones!” she is by turns a grotesque, a harridan and a tragicomic avenging virago robed in leopard-print Snuggie and indignation.
Even more unexpectedly, Candy becomes the brassy embodiment of the film’s subtlest point. “Dead Pigs” ultimately coaches pragmatism: You can’t beat the march of progress, so you might as well join it. But the character’s arc is a bittersweet little hat-tip to the symbols of the past that get jettisoned en route to the future. Her last stand may be futile, but it’s meaningful to the temporary community, soon to disperse, which gathers round for just a moment — just long enough for a quick, bizarre, beatific sing-along to Teresa Teng’s lachrymose 1986 hit “I Only Care About You.”
That’s a lovely and apt use of music, and there’s a moment earlier when a track fizzles in and out, in sync with an onscreen power cut, that’s inspired. But just as often the music layers on quirkiness and mood to unnecessarily intrusive effect. Still, if that lack of discipline is the cost of the generous, expansive, energetic wit of Yan’s immensely promising first feature, it’s one we should be happy to pay. After all, in the China of “Dead Pigs,” everything has its price, and everything can and will be bought and sold. It’s a moral that might have been defeatist if the film’s abiding image were not one of defiance: Candy, in her pink curlers atop her roof staring down a bulldozer like a Chinese Don Quixote facing his last windmill.