Exceptional and exceptionally confident, Cathy Yan’s “Dead Pigs” is a feature debut that leaves little mystery as to what DC studio execs saw in the filmmaker before tapping her to direct “Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).”

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Energetically directed and sharply written, this sparkling social satire has in its sights no smaller target than the rapid-onset Westernization of China’s urban sprawl, as embodied by five Shanghai residents searching for their place in a country vacillating between cultural tradition and a more soulless modernity. As debuts go, that kind of scope is ambitious and admirable. But the ace card in its deck is the skillful slickness with which Yan bobs and weaves around her ensemble cast, capturing not a tapestry of characters woven into one another (though they do eventually collide) so much as a group of painfully relatable strivers orbiting the same corrosive maw of capitalism with increasing fear and resignation.

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With most U.S. theaters remaining closed amid the pandemic, the stateside arrival of “Dead Pigs” on MUBI marks the seemingly final stop along its inexplicably long and winding road to release since making a world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize, more than three years ago. That a film so assertively pitched between offbeat farce, sophisticated cultural study, and effervescent charm could struggle to find U.S. distribution, even in light of its director’s meteoric ascent since, speaks to wider industry issues and the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” that “Parasite” writer-director Bong Joon-ho so famously noted at last year’s Oscars – an obstacle that needs to be overcome primarily in the too-narrow minds of studio executives out of touch with the multicultural audience they’re serving. Though the film is mostly in Mandarin, its meditations on economic mobility and poverty’s hydra-headed indignities resonate universally even more than they did a few years ago.

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Formerly a journalist, Yan was inspired to make “Dead Pigs” after reading about a real 2013 incident in which thousands of deceased swine were discovered floating in the Huangpu River, which supplies Shanghai with some of its drinking water. Official explanations for this strange event, as well as the official pig count, have varied, but the image of bloated sow carcasses drifting into view packs such a surreal punch in Yan’s film that we soon understand it to be more of a symbolic shorthand than a driving force for the plot.

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Populating Yan’s multi-narrative mosaic, instead, are those aforementioned characters, all battling to survive and retain senses of self amid a rising tide of globalization that’s enveloped China too quickly, and not on their terms. Pig farmer Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) staves off predatory loan sharks and his own growing despair after his entire sounder dies off in the titular incident, leaving him penniless. A young restaurant worker (Mason Lee) tells his father he’s a successful businessman even while living in the squalor of employee dorms, driving a wedge between the two – especially once the father is forced to ask him for money. A wealthy, disaffected young woman, Xia Xia (Meng Li). longs for a human connection not rooted in transaction, a tall order for her holistically entrepreneurial father. Ingratiating but well-meaning architect Sean (David Rysdahl) lies about his credentials as he oversees a luxury housing complex, elsewhere capitalizing on his whiteness in a series of side-hustles that bring him closer to another American expat (Zazie Beetz, “Joker”). Meanwhile, fierce beautician Candy (Vivian Wu, the film’s acerbic, irrepressible heart) battles eviction from her long-time family home while tending to a prized flock of pigeons. 

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Yan at first tracks these characters separately, in a series of introductory comic vignettes, leaving the connections between them (more-or-less deliberately concealed above) to come gradually into view across her film’s less-than-streamlined 130-minute runtime. But the show of trust she asks audiences to place in “Dead Pigs” as a result is rewarded by a work that startles through the generosity of its insights, and the uniform excellence of its performances. 

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Yan was born in China and raised in the U.S., and her deft approach to the political comedy in which these characters find themselves reflects a real satirist’s curiosity for mapping the myriad contradictions of everyday life in modern-day Shanghai. In places critical of but never mean-spirited toward her players, she maps the complexities of navigating a city where the encroaching influence of Western commercialism and the lingering impact of China’s Cultural Revolution haven’t dovetailed cleanly, but collided to form a jointly alienated and spectacularized reality – one in which even long-time residents are readily made to feel like outsiders. 

Virtual-reality headsets, neon-lit nightclubs, and bubblegum-synthetic splashes of color all mark Yan’s vision of Shanghai as a cosmopolis in the making even before the film foregrounds a housing development by the mighty Golden Happiness Properties corporation, which aims to garishly replicate Barcelona – complete with a recreation of its Sagrada Família cathedral – over the razed remains of Candy’s family home. (Aesthetically, it should be said, “Dead Pigs” makes it clear to whom the lion’s share of credit for “Birds of Prey”’s candy-colored cartoon atmosphere, and vision of a larger-than-life city teeming with situationally eccentric residents, is due.)  

“Dead Pigs” often courts absurdism outright, as during a salon employee pep talk, overseen by Candy with a drill sergeant’s severity as her identically clad workers chant, “I am the best! I am talented! I am unique! I will succeed!” Sean’s detours as a model-for-hire at corporate events, where his whiteness is exemplified and exoticized to amusing effect, stick out in hindsight as another particularly inspired subplot. Yan also finds a way to work real Chinese social phenomena into her film, such as a character who intentionally throws himself into traffic so as to cajole hush-money payments out of horrified drivers; such comically depressing inclusions only heighten the film’s larger observations about a culture poisoned by economic hardship.

But Yan’s third act gyres all her characters toward a climactic stand-off between a bathrobe-clad Candy (poodle underarm, hair curlers firmly in place) and the machine crane sent to decimate her lone turquoise domicile. It’s a memorable image in a film full of them, Wu’s ferocious performance and Yan’s reverent wide shots casting the beautician, defiantly poised upon her roof, as a surprisingly worthy adversary for such an inhuman, voracious instrument of capitalism. “Dead Pigs” loves its characters a little too much to cement its portrait of the socioeconomic stricture with the kind of pessimistic conclusion it would otherwise seem to be setting up – and would perhaps thematically be better-served by. And so it swings widely in the other direction, with a communal rendition (quickly escalated into a non-diegetic karaoke sing-along) of an anthemic pop number. In this moment, the film steps outside of itself to deliver a crowd-pleasing capper to its story of individual and familial integrity ground beneath the plastic gears of rampant consumerism – a bitterly ironic punchline to a film that, up until that point, feels bigger than the joke.

Less effective are routine intrusions by TV news broadcasts, which serve to check back in on those pesky pork corpses floating into Shanghai and relate their reports in an overly broad, winking register. The film’s already slightly glib finale is deflated most by these, with the anchor’s assessment that its surprising resolution, complete with a sing-along, plays “just like a true Hollywood movie” reminding us too bluntly that it does play just like that – and that “Dead Pigs” has been designed perhaps a little too much as a calling card for its rising-star writer-director. 

But with “Birds of Prey” already in Yan’s rearview, and an A24 project in the offing, the film is perhaps already fated to be remembered as a launchpad. And that’s a perception that sells short the striking effectiveness of “Dead Pigs”: as a work of ebullient satire and quietly stirring humanism, as well as a trenchant study of China’s frenetic modernization as a horror show in progress, one that’s every bit the equal of America’s own late-capitalist nightmare. [A-]

“Dead Pigs” is available on MUBI now.