I have a theory – and it’s not all worked out yet, so stick with me – that the reason it took this long for Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs to find a wide release in the U.S. is that she sort of goes hard making fun of Magnolia. She’s making fun of Magnolia, right? Maybe it’s a riff, maybe it’s homage, but something about it feels very much like a challenge. Too many elements, from the rainy, bleary atmosphere to the interconnected and inter-generational family dynamics to the indictment of very specific capitalist ideals as a constant roadblock to happiness – it all seems to be directly calling out PT Anderson’s bloated, lumbering film. Even the score has very clear echoes of Jon Brion, which was itself based at least partly around John Williams’ Schindler’s List theme. She even, unbelievably, has the spine to go all in and indulge in her own sing-along moment. So the references run deep. That Yan succeeds and one-ups those components every time (and made the better movie) would have looked like an act of war upon a certain segment of the arthouse crowd that no studio would have known what to do with had it been released on its own as a debut feature from some nobody we’d never heard of. Anderson, who seems to be the chillest man on Earth, might have just smiled, nodded in agreement, and moved on (he knows what he made).
I’m half-kidding. The comparison is very much there, and was certainly on her mind. But Dead Pigs is so much more than those superficial similarities. Even given the film’s own internal system of Hollywood reverence, this is a unique vision. There is a level of understanding and command of her craft here that has become exceedingly rare for first time feature filmmakers working on projects of this scope. But Yan’s best trick is that she allows her opening act to just throw all her pieces up in the air and hope that we’ll catch them. It takes a sure and steady hand to keep them all under control, and she never lets us fumble. What’s also striking is that her follow-up, Birds of Prey, seems exactly of a piece with Dead Pigs. As uncommon as it is to see this much talent already alive and thriving in a debut, it’s almost ridiculous to discover that she was able to maintain her personal style so completely with the jump to a big league franchise. If studio superhero tentpoles are to maintain their dominance and want to be considered real art, they’d do well to keep hiring more Cathy Yans.
For all the bright and sparkly visuals, there’s a true sadness to the film. We only get to spend a few days with this extended family, but it’s clear right away that there are wounds here that go back generations. Some become the main focus of the story, such as the imminent demolition of the last remaining house on a plot of land destined to become just another piece of the ugly suburban industrial complex. Others are barely hinted at, like what exactly went wrong between the fathers and sons in this family. But all of it feels real and lived-in. Yan gives each character room to move and breathe, Vivian Wu’s exuberantly stubborn Candy and Haoyu Yang as her raging, desperate brother, Old Wang, being the obvious standouts among a cast of uniformly excellent performances.
Yan doesn’t leave us in the dark as to the primary source of her family’s dysfunction, though. It all comes down to money: who has it, who needs it, how to grab some fast and the intense, death-grip existential stress of what to do once it’s gone. The dead pigs have turned Old Wang’s world upside down, but they’re just the latest and most severe example of what appears to be a long history of financial risk and ruin. His older son seems fed up with being asked to bail him out, while his youngest resorts to gunning his bike down rainy streets in the middle of the night, staging hit and run accidents in order to extort the drivers. It all seems maybe a little too precious on paper, but Yan and her cast are able to sell all of it with honesty and gravity.
There is also the subtler (and weirder) thread following each character’s separate but similar attempts at either controlling or inventing reality all around them. As we meet each new member of the family, we get the sense that they operate outside of any truly shared, tangible world. They all live in their own heads. This is made literal, as if to drive the point home, through the running joke of all the old men being obsessed with VR goggles. Old Wang at first is like a child scrambling to get his hands on one, butting for position, always insisting it’s his turn to play. By the end of the film, his attitude changes, but not in the way a lesser, easier film would permit. He’s allowed some nuance. All the characters seem to be on some quest for understanding and accepting both the world they see around them and their appointed roles within the broader span of the story. Their financial troubles motivate them, but they are each driven by their own desires to break free of something bigger. For some it’s a distinct hardship, such as with Candy’s fight against the developers. We are made to see both sides of this situation and, while we empathize with Candy, we’re also given permission to see how her unwillingness to step outside of herself has ruined her and will only continue to do so if she doesn’t take more decisive action. In others it’s something a little more elusive, like the young couple’s bumpy attempts at connecting through a series of strangely escalating injuries. In this case, we don’t have all the details about what’s keeping them apart or, for that matter, why they should get together. But just the same we get enough that we’re able to gather their (and the film’s ) point of view. As always, Yan keeps her grip on this material and shows us more about each little detail of their lives, and their places in the family, through simple but telling interactions within their own little environments.
It’s also just about the loosest, wackiest comedy you could possibly pull from all this. Yan never lets us forget this is all pure absurdism, even when things are at their most dire. But this is also the stuff of regular people and regular lives. Real life can get pretty absurd. All of these characters and stories could just as easily have been wrenched for pure melodrama or thrown into the mainstream American comedy mixer and become cheap jokes. It’s a balance not many young first-timers are able to pull off with such seeming ease and wit. This is Yan’s true mark of emerging greatness. In just two features she’s been able to demonstrate such a mastery of timing and technique, and with films that couldn’t be further apart in industry terms, that we’re able to see and understand her world as clearly as if she’d been doing this for a lifetime already. To be perfectly honest, I’d have loved it just the same had it been nothing more than a baseball bat to Magnolia‘s kneecaps. Yan instead gave us a great movie. If we’re in on that extra little joke, well, good for us. We have to hold on to her.