Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.
In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.
All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.