Shanghai is a city on the move, with new developments practically going up daily, but not everyone is able to capitalise on this newfound Chinese capitalism, much as they would like to. Take Old Wang (Hayou Wang), a middle aged local who keeps pigs and whose investments have done him proud in that respect. But on returning home one day from splashing out on a virtual reality headset, he finds the pigs dead or dying, and he is at a loss what to do - a very big loss, as this triggers his impending bankruptcy unless he can drum up a small fortune. Can he ask his small business owner sister Candy (Vivian Wu)? Or his waiter son Zhen (Mason Lee)?
Not that Old Wang knows that his offspring is a waiter, but he has been concealing his poverty from his father, as it is a source of deep shame for anyone in what is meant to be a burgeoning economy. This was the unappetisingly titled debut feature from Cathy Yan, and for a while all anyone knew about it was that it was the first film previous to her Margot Robbie-starring would-be blockbuster Birds of Prey, though past that most drew a blank. It turned out to be a lightly satirical examination of the new Chinese money markets as the country moved on its dream to take over from The United States as the world's most prominent superpower.
And as the coronavirus took hold across the Pacific, it appeared as though China was going to take an opportunity to make that a reality. That included culturally as well as financially, where homegrown megabudget efforts would have to be making very big mistake not to see huge receipts from the local moviegoers and they were travelling pretty well too, not that they really needed to in order to make their money back manyfold. Some in the West were suspicious of these efforts, since they were every one approved by the Chinese state censor and often had the whiff of propaganda about them, but what of Yan, who was a native of the pesky Hong Kong and the American Washington?
Was she going to smuggle in some subversive messages to her comedy drama, or did she know which side her bread was buttered and opted to keep a lid on that kind of anti-establishment criticism? The answer was, well, she did both, she appeased the authorities while getting in digs at the revived systems. The reason she got away with that was possibly because the new Chinese capitalism was patterned after the American business model, so presumably did rankle with the heavily traditionalist old guard, but also, they may have agreed that it should be shameful not to seize the benefits of the flood of money and profit from it. After all, the whole "We're gonna be rich!" is a carrot dangled across nationalist promises in many countries.
No matter how hollow that may sound if you end up no closer to that promised improvement in status than you were in the beginning, and there was a sense Yan was eyeing these circumstances sceptically, sweetening the pill with a degree of wacky personality as the mysteriously dead pigs of the title clog up the rivers, eccentric Candy refuses to budge when developers want her property, and Zhen and an heiress, Xia Xia (Meng Li) get to know each other despite class differences that are more convincing on the script page. Yet serious moments abounded, adding an edge; we're never in any doubt that there are those who are trampled underfoot in this gold rush, from the melon stall owner who Xia Xia accidentally mows down in her car to Zhen having to bite his tongue when some rich bastard treats him like scum at work. It was a little scrappy in construction, and the "we all stand together" singalong finale was hard to believe, but it did seem to get away with something. Music by Andrew Orkin.