Why you should care
Because Cathy Yan’s directorial debut puts human faces on inequality in the East.
OZY is reporting live from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
The trouble starts upstream. In her Sundance debut, Dead Pigs, first-time director and screenwriter Cathy Yan gives a compassionate glimpse of a modern and often messy Chinese society as it manages breakneck economic growth.
The images of dead, diseased pigs from poor farms floating down the river into Shanghai would seem like a metaphor — but it really happened. Yan pulled from history, adding intimate knowledge of China that she gleaned while working there as a journalist.
The sheer scale of development in China can have one lost in dry statistics. But this film is all about human connections — often funny, touching and tragic. The glowing skyline of Shanghai can almost be seen by villagers whose dreams seem on the periphery of society. Chinese party girls are glued to jewel-bespangled smartphones, while a pig farmer buys a virtual reality game he can’t afford. Beauty salon workers chant business slogans like capitalists, and an American architect works on a housing development based around a tacky replica of a Spanish cathedral. Everyone’s trying to make some renminbi. But along the way, the characters also try to create and keep the relationships that really matter.
Yan sat down with OZY in Park City, Utah, to talk about her film, China, capitalism … and dead pigs.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you tell me about your work as a journalist and your inspiration for the movie?
I found China to be the most interesting place to report on. There’s so much change that’s happening in China and all these kooky, crazy stories coming out of there. So that served as inspiration for the film, which is based off this true event. The biggest difference about what happened in real life and what happened in the movie is that the movie gives a reason for it, but in real life there wasn’t. There were only rumors. The film is located where the event happened. I wanted it to be as specific and authentic as I could.
How are excess and capitalism, themes explored in your film, different in China than in the West?
I thought it was different, but I don’t know anymore. Everything in China seems to be very exaggerated and faster. It’s going through the largest urbanization movement in history. Then once we started shooting the film, it was after the U.S. election, and so suddenly seeing America through the lens of the film made me think there’s no difference really. I thought we as a country [the United States] managed to get over a lot of the same issues of change, and about who gets left behind economically.
What could the United States learn from China, and vice versa, in terms of unequal economic growth?
You have two incredibly ambitious countries that both believe they are meant to be the global superpower, and then on top of that you have this rampant capitalism. So I think that combination with not much of a safety net in either country has led to these societal ills. At the end of the day, my film is about individuals and how they go back to what really matters, like personal connections. Things keep moving, but you need to recognize the people around you… and realize you aren’t as different as you are similar.
The movie seemed to end on an optimistic note. Are you optimistic about Chinese society?
The ending has played differently for different people. I think it’s a bit bittersweet. They win some and they lose some. I like thinking optimistically, and I wanted to give these characters hope and a future. Do I feel like the whole country deserves to be seen like that? I don’t know, but I felt like I wanted to see the characters have that.