A couple of years before directing “Birds of Prey,” Cathy Yan made “Dead Pigs,” a movie that suggests that her penchant for indulgent stylization predates a studio budget. Inspired by several true stories — including a 2013 incident in which thousands of pig carcasses were found in the Huangpu River — the film weaves together a colorful confection of tales about corruption and class inequities in modern-day China.
It’s a tonal wild ride with eccentric characters, neon-lit settings and elaborately absurd detours. Unfortunately, the ripped-from-the-headlines meat of “Dead Pigs” gets lost in these affectations.
The film’s interconnected plots riff on a number of familiar oppositions: rural/urban, rich/poor, East/West. The pig farmer Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) is chased by loan sharks after his stock dies mysteriously and he loses his savings in an investment fraud. The bird-loving beautician Candy (Vivian Wu) wages a solitary battle against developers eager to tear down her ancestral home and build a swanky new apartment complex. There’s also a young busboy (Mason Lee) who begins an unlikely relationship with a wealthy heiress (Meng Li), and an American expat (David Rysdahl) who becomes embroiled in scams that milk his “exotic” whiteness.
But as Yan stuffs set piece after set piece into these arcs — including an impromptu karaoke performance and some shenanigans involving a V.R. headset — they start to feel like collections of quirks rather than stories of real people. The filmmaker Jia Zhangke, who served as an executive producer, is a clear influence here, but unlike his keenly observed portraits of a fast-globalizing China, “Dead Pigs” lacks the heft of human detail, its ironies fizzling out in a hasty happy ending.
Not rated. In Mandarin and English, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. Watch on Mubi.
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