Towards the end of filming the central location in “Dead Pigs,” a lonely turquoise house on the outskirts of Shanghai slated for demolition in order for the corporate Golden Happiness Group to redevelop the land as a glistening new apartment complex complete with an authentic Spanish Cathedral to replicate the experience of being in Spain, writer/director Cathy Yan was approached by an older couple who stopped by to see what they were filming. After all, Yan and her crew had made put a lot of love into making sure the house was eye-popping enough to justify the extreme measures taken by one of the film’s protagonists, Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), to defend it.
“They’re just kind of looking and I think my producer asked who they were and they said they actually used to live in that house,” recalls Yan. “It was really this beautiful moment where they got to see their house again, slightly reinterpreted, but alive again and right after we shot there, they demolished it because that whole area is going to turn into essentially the new financial center of Shanghai. In a weird way, [this film] was a snapshot of this specific moment in time [and] it gave us a lot of pressure to shoot this movie quickly.”
While “Dead Pigs” is arresting in how much of the moment it is, one suspects it’ll grow even more prescient around the world as it reflects the effects of globalization on a family that witnesses firsthand what historical legacy must be sacrificed and what values must be protected to survive in the new China. Inspired by a real-life 2013 incident in which the Huangpu River piled up with over 16,000 swine under mysterious circumstances, polluting all of the connecting waterways, Yan’s feature debut flows through Candy and Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), a sister and brother with competing impulses both with each other and within themselves.
While Candy runs a beauty salon in the city, she treasures the home outside of it where three generations of her family grew up, Old Wang is a pig farmer who becomes enamored of virtual reality, making an ill-advised purchase of a headset just as his stock of pigs go belly up and leaving him with considerable debt. He’s pinned his hopes on his son Wang Zhen, a waiter at a fancy Shanghai restaurant that all-too-unfortunately specializes in suckling pig which gives him plenty of time to get to know Xia Xia (Meng Li), a customer whose wealth has given her a life with so little consequence that she yearns for some. Yan also gives room to Sean (David Rysdahl), a young American architect brought in by the Golden Happiness Group to oversee their Spanish high-rise and feels out of place as his Chinese colleagues celebrate his every move even if he has no progress to show for it, especially when Candy refuses to leave her house.
Yan, a former journalist, pens a clever and sprawling satire that doubles as a remarkably sophisticated study of the impact on every level of Chinese society as the East embraces Western capitalist values as Candy will stop at nothing to protect her home while even her brother is compelled to sell it. But “Dead Pigs” also marks the debut of a technically inventive storyteller, as Yan brings in full-blown musical numbers, sonic trickery and sweeping cinematography to capture the vibrance and immediacy of a country that’s changing by the minute to jump off the screen. It’s as exciting for the film that it is as what it portends for a distinctive new voice in cinema and during the whirlwind that is Sundance, Yan graciously took the time to talk about figuring out a story that could capture Shanghai in all its diversity, the surprises that helped inform the production and upending expectations.
How did this come about?
I used to be a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, so I’ve always been really interested in true stories, specifically [in] China. I was born in China, but raised in the U.S. and would go back to China every year, so when I read about this real dead pigs incident, it just immediately drew me in. Then I was somewhat inspired by what happened with the event itself – there were just nothing but pigs in the river, but the individual farmers themselves didn’t realize that everyone else was [dumping the pigs into the river], so there was this strange network effect where you have your own personal point of view or experience, and then only later do you realize this all comes together, like every human in the world is more connected than we realize. That was how I thought about the structure of the film was what if we had the individuals that we get to know and understand and see their point of views and then they start to intersect over these pigs coming down the river.
Were you thinking about how you’d use colors from the start of this? It’s such a vibrant film because of the palette you use, really setting the tone and differentiating the stories is a distinctive way.
A lot of that was just inspired by China itself. It’s a very colorful place and there’s just a lot of neon and colored lights. When we shot in Shanghai at night, there’s all these interesting bright billboards on the buildings, so when I was speaking to my DP [Federico Cesca] about the look of the film, we decided on a few things. We wanted to shoot really wide with anamorphic lenses [to have] the context of the background because the country itself was such a big element of the film, and then in terms of the color palette, we wanted to make it colorful, partially because it was inspired by what we saw there, but also because we wanted to create a heightened version of reality so that tonally, it all worked together. We really do play around with that, [the colors] really ease people into that world.
You’ve also said you trusted your cast to some degree to make the dialogue authentically Shanghainese after you wrote the script – what was it like giving them that space?
I loved it. When I was directing shorts, I didn’t really do that as much, so I guess I took a big risk with this feature, but I felt like it allowed us to keep it fresh every take and to really just be present and have them react to whatever was happening in the moment. That applies to not just the actors, but also to the crew because we didn’t block all that much. I wanted to give my actors the freedom to move around and and each take felt a little challenging for our camera [crew]. Our poor dolly grip was like, “Oh my gosh, which way are we going now?” and our DP was moving the camera around a lot and had to really follow [the actors], but it kept everyone on their toes and brought an energy to the performances and even the way that we shot it that I hope translates to the screen.
It also really looked like you got around the city – was it a challenge to shoot a film with this many exteriors?
[laughs] It was. There were a lot of different locations, but it was important for the film because, like I said, so much of it is about the context and locations themselves, so we shot a lot of nights. We had almost two weeks of night exteriors and it was definitely challenging. We weren’t such a big film that we could close off the streets, so we’d often be shooting it in the middle of the street and we’d have to deal with traffic and other people watching. But that’s kind of part of the fun.
Where did you find Candy Wang’s house?
That was really lucky. We didn’t have the money to CGI anything, so we knew we had to find the right location because so much of the production of the film depended on it. We started looking for that house early on and it’s a section [of Shanghai] that used to be a village that was getting demolished at the time. By the time we were location scouting, it was almost all gone. When I had started scouting that place a year prior, there were still a bunch of houses and then by the time we started preproduction and we were scouting it again, it was all rubble, but there were still a few [houses] left as holdovers. The house that we selected was already abandoned, so there were no windows, no doors, and the ceiling was partially gone, but the structure was there and the exterior location was so amazing because everywhere you looked you could see other homes and it was total destruction. I really wanted to make sure we got that across – it felt like a war zone – because that’s how I felt when I was there.
There’s something really sad about it. When you walk around, people left their lives [there] and you’d see the clothing and furniture. I knew immediately when we found this house [because] we’d walk through this abandoned house and whoever had lived there had a pink toilet and these really interesting ‘90s style wallpaper that [made it] feel like Candy was already there. It was so bizarre. It was like the house itself had so many elements of the production design for Candy that it actually ended up inspiring the look and the production design of the house itself. And the house was perfect. It had the roof already, just the way it was, and we built the pigeon pen and painted [the house] blue and obviously we put back windows. Then [put in] all the production design and everything that’s in Candy’s house and shot inside the house on location.
Of course, Sean is the American put in charge of knocking the house down to make way for development, but he’s surprisingly well-meaning and not necessarily slick, as you might usually see in a story like this. How did you create that character?
He was really difficult, to be honest, because he’s sort of the lone wolf. You’ve got Candy and Wang and they’ve got their relationship, which is really at the center of the film, and then these two young lovers and by design, Sean is innately the outsider. He’s an outsider in China and he also floats between all these different other storylines [while] he’s got his own, so it was definitely difficult to figure him out. But I wanted this outsider look represented in China and to play around with racism and reverse racism of white identity in China. I wanted to make him empathetic, so I think a way to do that was obviously cast someone that brings that real empathy to the role, but also making him have these goals too. He wants to build something of himself and for himself, but at the same time, that means demolishing Candy’s house. We all, I think, can understand the feeling of wanting to prove yourself, and maybe not being given the chance to do so, so seeing this huge opportunity to prove yourself was where I started with this character.
I also wanted to make sure that he was not the white savior. [laughs] There’s far too many films in which the white guy comes and saves the day, so I very much wanted to make sure he was not going to do that, and I actually think we play around with the idea that he could and then he doesn’t [at the end of the film], so I wanted him to be an empathetic character, but not the hero of the movie.
There are all of these wonderful little details that I imagine happened in post-production, like when the power is shut off in Candy’s house, the score stops just as abruptly, and when there’s a scene where the frenzy around the dead pigs in the river reaches a fever pitch, you express that through the subtitles as much as the voices you hear. Was it fun playing around the tone like that after filming had ended?
Yeah, it was. You’re always figuring out what the film is in preproduction, production and post, so we realized that we really wanted to make it funny and playful [to] make people laugh and nod along and sing along. So that element was added later. The karaoke titles [for the song that closes out the film] were even added later. We always knew there was going to be that song, but it this funny thing where we were talking about, how do we subtitle that? Do we want to translate the lyrics and have that [one screen]? That seemed a little lame and I didn’t want people to think too much about what the lyrics were saying, so it ended up being a solution to that. So it was just like, well, why don’t we just make it karaoke instead?
There’s another great musical moment in the film when Sean is at the ribbon cutting for a new mall and a delightfully cheesy song called “Everybody Celebrate” comes on to underscore the festivities, like forced merriment. Was that composed for the film?
It was and that was actually in post-production too. There’s a funny story around that because originally, Sean said, “It’s a small world after all” and then our legal team is like, “Guys… you can’t. Disney is very litigious. You do not want to get in a fight with Disney.” So in ADR, we changed it to “It’s a mall world after all,” which really works I think because China really loves malls. It’s all about building something new and clean and fancy, as a contrast to what Candy’s house is like. Then we needed to create a song, so our composer composed a melody and actually me, my editor and my assistant editor wrote the lyrics.
What’s Sundance been like for you?
It’s definitely been nerve-wracking. I appreciated premiering early, to get it over with. [laughs] But it’s been really amazing just to be here. I’ve never been to Sundance before and what’s really been incredible is to hear how people respond to it and that it’s been overwhelmingly positive. There’s something about the fact that there aren’t that many Chinese people at Sundance or that many Asians at all, yet the film has seemed to resonate with people that have nothing to do with China. That’s really been so awesome to see. People seem to really like it, understand it and get it and especially for some of my Chinese producers and our other crew members [that are here], that was really moving to them, to feel like a film about them or a story that’s authentically about Chinese people could be appreciated outside of China.
“Dead Pigs” shows at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on January 25th at 2:30 p.m. at the Prospector and January 26th at 9:15 p.m. at the Holiday 2.