As overstuffed with ideas both political and cinematic as any debut feature you’re likely to see this year is Cathy Yan’s film about the intersecting lives of a family in Shanghai and its environs and their war with both capital and the very concept of property itself. Vivian Wu plays a hair salon owner (her employees gleefully begin the day with a self-affirming song and dance) who doesn’t want to sell her family home to a big corporation, which has plans to develop the area it into a giant Spanish-themed apartment complex surrounding a replica of the Sagrada Familia. Her brother is a pig farmer who finds himself over-extended with a local loan shark after he falls for an investment scam and all his pigs die in a mysterious plague that sweeps the city (eventually some 16,000 pigs end up dumped in local waterways). His son is a busboy working in the city who meets and falls for a rich girl who becomes disillusioned with her club life after a car accident. The brother needs money and so tries to get his sister to sell her house, and alternately appeals to his son (who he mistakenly thinks is earning big money with a real job) for help. The sister refuses: the house is hers, the property is a part of herself and she cannot conceive of relinquishing it. The son tries to help, but all he can come up with is scamming cash off of driving by running into their cars with his bicycle.
Yan skips deftly between the stories, and the drama is leavened by a light touch and a great deal of comedy, ably waling the line between maudlin and silly. The satire is pointed, both in the amoral greed of the corporation and the sympathetic unreasonableness of the sister. But it’s also brightly colored (thank God for Chinese cinema, one of the few cinemas in the world that has yet to abandon pink and green and red in favor of gray and teal and orange) and knows how to bring everything together for a musical sequence, Magnolia-style.
Yan, who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and Washington DC, went to Princeton and got both an MBA and MFA from NYU, clearly has a unique insight into the contradictions of global capitalism in an ostensibly class-free society. While most of the characters are recognizable types (the sister as a variation on Yuen Qiu’s landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, the brother as an older version of the striving workers of Jia Zhangke’s films, the girl in the city a wealthier version of Shu Qi’s club girl in Millennium Mambo), the one that seems to resonate most for her is an American architect, from rural Minnesota, who finds himself in charge of this massive project on the other side of the world, where he doesn’t speak the language and may not even be qualified for the job. He’s the human face of capital, muddling along just like the rest of us, increasingly aware that things in our world are all out of whack.
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