This weekend - not coincidentally, the weekend of local New Year's celebrations - the action-comedy Detective Chinatown 3 is expected to set a new financial benchmark at the Chinese box office. This development follows hard on the heels of 2020, when for the first time total Chinese box-office takings surpassed those of the US - though, granted, that seismic pop-cultural shift had as much to do with Asia's swift and effective response to the Coronavirus as it does with new economic norms. Clearly, however, there's a newfound confidence within the Chinese film industry, and it's borne out once more in this week's most notable streaming release, Cathy Yan's Dead Pigs, an ambitious, big-picture mosaic movie that uses its criss-crossing strands to hatch in an idea of a country in the throes of an aggressively rapid modernisation. Its core players are these: a buffoonish farmer (Yang Haoyu) who snaps up a VR headset only to learn his other investments are a dead loss; a beauty salon owner (Vivian Wu), forced to occupy her family home in defiance of the developers around it; a bored heiress (Li Meng) who crosses paths with a penniless waiter (Mason Lee) in the wake of a drink-driving incident; and an American architect (David Rysdahl), commissioned to oversee a full-scale replica of the Segrada Familia (which has the look of a white elephant from its first appearance in a corporate video), but who finds himself recruited by a talent scout (Zazie Beetz) to serve as the English-speaking frontman for more questionable projects besides. The titular pigs, felled by disease and dumped in the rivers running through this plot, are as the frogs that fell from the sky in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia - and Yan's sinuously roving camera, coupled with Andrew Orkin's unifying incidental music, suggest the presence of a filmmaker cineliterate enough to have fully absorbed that sprawling, gloriously unruly influence.
This is, however, a Chinese film first and foremost, prefaced by the logo of the State Film Bureau, and the fact Dead Pigs has landed among us apparently uncut arguably suggests censorship may be beginning to loosen its grip out East. Yan's film opens up a window onto the New Shanghai: those recent, large-scale construction projects, completed or otherwise, the newly leisured classes lounging in pre-Covid bars and animal cafes. Yet this grand tour comes as part of a never entirely flattering or reassuring vision of a society in which everything's a shortcut, a facade, a virtual reality; where houses are being rebuilt on the shakiest of foundations. Savings vanish overnight, embezzled by a privileged few, and citizens are told to suck it up. A motorist hits a cyclist, throws a fistful of banknotes on his supine form, and drives off - leading the cyclist to realise he can make a better living from endangering himself in this way than he can from any legitimate day job. (Yan is interested in what a life might be worth in modern China: an interaction between the heiress and the wife of the man she's paralysed in that car accident yields one of the strongest scenes here.) There's a certain sickness in the water even before those bloated pig corpses - poisoned by corporate feed, and tossed by struggling relics of an agrarian society who don't know what else to do with them - bob back to the surface, and you don't have to travel very far if you're looking for a source. The salonista's Farrah Fawcett workout tape and core beliefs ("there are no ugly women, just lazy ones"), the rap our party girl listens to, Beetz as the irresistible face of corporate doubletalk, a TV news reporter's gushing insistence that a siege scenario is "like a Hollywood movie": all pointers that China has opened up big time to the US model. Yan leaves us to determine if this courtship has been mutually beneficial, or whether somebody's getting screwed in the process.
In some of its concerns, Dead Pigs overlaps with the work of Jia Zhangke, an exec-producer here, and a filmmaker whose career has taken in both tracts on the double-edged nature of Chinese development (24 City, Still Life) and multistranded character pieces (Platform, A Touch of Sin). Yan is more of a crowdpleaser, which is why she's turned to such stars as Beetz and Wu, the latter apparently having a whale of a time in a blowsily indomitable prole role, facing off against the bulldozers with Hilda Ogden curlers in her hair. One positive American influence, the film concedes, has been on the telling of stories: how these have been democratised, making their themes approachable and graspable. (Yan went on to shoot last year's global megahit Birds of Prey.) I suspect this is one reason Dead Pigs received the state's rubber stamp: a supremely slick and entertaining watch - editor Alexander Kopil nimbly clipping around the more expressly critical material - it's thus an easy export. Yan even delivers two distinct endings, one featuring a rousing collective singalong, and then - after the censors had switched off - one that introduces an openly ambiguous note about capitalism's effects on this environment. (Stay tuned to the very end of the end credits for a witheringly sarcastic music cue.) Yet even as it moves, Yan's camera keeps landing on damningly absurd images she doesn't have to fake up unduly: a vast trampoline park, celebrity dog shows, those porkers piling up and forming islands in the stream of contemporary China. All this excavation and agitation has left everyone and everything uprooted, turned the landscape into a giant, ever-changing set. This China is undeniably "like a Hollywood movie" - we never quite know what's coming next - but within it Yan troubles to frame a pointed question. Why would anyone need a VR headset when the world around you forms such a crazy, unreal spectacle?
Dead Pigs streams from today via MUBI UK.