Cathy Yan: “I want to be more than the first Asian woman to direct a superhero movie”

How unsellable Chinese satire 'Dead Pigs' launched the 'Birds Of Prey' filmmaker's career

In March 2013, then-journalist Cathy Yan stumbled across an odd story about thousands of dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River in China. She’d already started film school by then, and the strange news item sparked an idea. The next five years were dedicated to making a movie about it, Dead Pigs, which picked up awards buzz on the festival circuit and ultimately changed her life. After a strong showing at Sundance 2018, Yan was offered her breakout gig: directing the superhero blockbuster Birds Of Prey.

That Suicide Squad spin-off starring Margot Robbie went on to gross $200m, but Yan’s debut – a mesmerising Chinese-language drama about a collection of Shanghai oddballs – remained on the shelf, released only in China. This week, Dead Pigs finally gets a wide release via indie streaming platform MUBI.

Dead Pigs
‘Dead Pigs’ is Yan’s debut film. CREDIT: MUBI

“This wasn’t some grand gesture to withhold the movie until now!” Yan laughs, speaking to NME via Zoom from her colourfully-decorated study in New York. “I’ve always wanted Dead Pigs out in the world. Distributors didn’t really know what to do with it, and they weren’t willing to take the risk. Is it foreign language? Is it not? It’s a difficult film to put in a box.”

Featuring an eclectic cast with, at the time, no major headliners (Zazie Beetz would go on to impress in Joker), it’s easy to see why Dead Pigs was a difficult sell. Following the interconnected lives of a waiter, a beauty salon owner, an American architect, a pig farmer and a bored rich girl, it is both weird and wonderful: a sprawling Magnolia-inspired narrative designed with a clashing pastel colour palette. During the film, replicas of La Sagrada Familia and Eiffel Tower are built in the Chinese countryside, cast members break into spontaneous musical numbers and, of course, an endless stream of pigs float into the city.

“I knew I had a very unique perspective on the world”

“China is a very boisterous, kind of crazy, deeply kitsch and earnest place,” says Yan, Chinese by birth but brought up in America. “I knew I had a very unique perspective on the world. [Dead Pigs was about] trying to make sense of my own identity.”

Dead Pigs
‘Dead Pigs’ is set in Shanghai. CREDIT: MUBI

Born in mainland China, Yan was raised by her grandparents until the age of 4. Her dad had left to study in the US before she was born, and her mother soon after. The family eventually resettled just outside Washington D.C. High school meant another move to Hong Kong, before studying at Princeton for her undergraduate, followed later by a dual degree in business and film at NYU. Following that with journalism might seem like another handbrake turn, but Yan spent some time as an intern at the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing office. Her first taste of writing led to a junior reporter job with The Wall Street Journal (in between degrees), which in turn introduced her to the world of video journalism.

“It was like: ‘Here’s a camera, go out and shoot something while you’re writing the story’,” Yan told Princeton’s alumni magazine later. That led to making movies in her free time before finally applying to film school aged 27.

Cathy Yan
Yan on the set of ‘Dead Pigs’. CREDIT: Jin Yuxin

Though Yan says moving about so much made her feel like a visitor in both countries, her dual heritage offered a unique opportunity when it came time to make Dead Pigs. “Both of my producers were Western-educated Chinese women who lived in China,” she says. “They felt excited to make a movie like this – because there was no way a fully local filmmaker would make a movie like this.”

As well as feeling fresh to a Chinese audience, Yan was able to say something equally impactful about Western society too. “I originally thought of it in terms of China specifically,” she says, “but a lot of the themes – about the wealth divide, people trying to figure themselves out in a new reality full of changes – have certainly played out in the rest of the world too.”

Margot Robbie, Harley Quinn, Birds Of Prey
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in ‘Birds Of Prey’. CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures

Yan is referring to America here, and its currently volatile political situation. Donald Trump has just made history as the only president to be impeached twice. Joe Biden’s presidency, although new, has ended four years of bitterness for many US citizens. Could the long-awaited release of Dead Pigs be her reward for surviving it? “Sure, that’s what everybody wants!” she laughs. “In the four years since I’ve made that film, America has changed so much. Using that as a lens to look back into what is happening here is fascinating.”

Yan’s natural ability to tap into the zeitgeist is probably what made the Birds Of Prey producers take notice at Sundance. After Wonder Woman kicked in the glass ceiling and proved a female-fronted superhero flick could make bank ($822m), Warner Bros. needed an even stronger follow-up.

“I didn’t just want to make a superhero movie, I was interested in female rage”

“I told myself that I wouldn’t change my ways,” Yan says of her experience directing the film, which saw Margot Robbie play Joker’s villainous ex Harley Quinn. The filmmaker recently said she “would have loved to have more control over the edit” and has talked candidly about the pressures of working for such a major studio – and their major budget. But in conversation with NME, Yan mostly remembers the shoot fondly.

“We were allowed to play almost as much as I normally like to play. Of course, there were a few more restrictions, but some of the best moments of the movie come from the spontaneous play that we found on set.” And how did she feel when she got the call to direct in the first place? “I didn’t think it was possible. I did not think I was the likely or safe choice by any means. I did not just want to make a superhero movie, I was interested in making a movie about female rage in a way to hit back at the patriarchy, ironically, within a patriarchal system.”

Birds of Prey review
Harley Quinn sets out on her own at the start of ‘Birds of Prey’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

To sell her vision, Yan put together a sizzle reel of images to a homemade remix of Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, which “spoke about female anger and the way the female body has been treated in both the media and in movies, and then the way female protagonists have been able to fight back from that.” Less Joker, Avengers and other superhero movies like it – she was more inspired by Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, and titles about female rage including Carrie, Mad Max, Spring Breakers and Thelma & Louise. The result? Something superhero fans had never seen before, that only an outsider with a fresh perspective could create.

“Mainstream cinema has to keep evolving,” Yan says. “It always takes these more indie voices to start impacting that culture, or at least it should – and if that conversation stops happening, that’s when the art form starts to die. These movies have to stay artistic and contain that integrity.” Is it about keeping people surprised, then? “Absolutely. Steve Jobs was like, ‘Don’t give people what they want, they don’t know what they want, give them the new thing.’ That’s where creativity is.

“It’s hard to get your voice through the system and not have it diluted in some way”

“Filmmakers taking those risks, typically, are working on a smaller scale. The industry is changing in the sense that these indie filmmakers are given the opportunity to make bigger things a little more interesting. But at the same time it’s harder to get your voice through that system, and not have it diluted in some way.”

Yan is well-placed to understand these nuances, and the importance of communicating a different perspective. With Birds of Prey, she became the second woman to direct a superhero movie after Patty Jenkins made Wonder Woman in 2017 – and the first Asian woman to do so, ever. Are these milestones something she thinks about? “I have certainly been made aware of it,” she says. “It’s a double-edged sword: I want to be seen as something other than just that, but I also acknowledge how deeply important it is for a lot of people to be out there. I want to show that it can be done.

Dead Pigs
Zazie Beetz in ‘Dead Pigs’. CREDIT: MUBI

“When I was growing up, there weren’t that many female directors, and there certainly weren’t many that looked like me. I think it did prevent me from deciding to become a filmmaker until much later in life. But it can’t just stop there, the change has to be much more institutionalised. It can’t just be a bunch of dudes patting themselves on the back because they hired a woman. There has to be women at all levers of power who can enact real change. My hiring is a little small step towards that, but it certainly cannot be the last.”

Today, Yan can count more female contemporaries telling the bigger stories. People like Ava DuVernay, Greta Gerwig, Olivia Wilde and Chloé Zhao can all boast huge budgets on upcoming projects. Zhao, in particular, seems like an example of what Yan has been fighting for herself, as a filmmaker taking the world by storm with Oscars frontrunner Nomadland, while gearing up to direct Eternals for Marvel. “For a long time, there had been this feeling that women and people of colour had to stick to small stories because they have no mass appeal,” Yan says. “And on the reverse, I think a lot of filmmakers have almost been like, ‘I don’t want to do a superhero movie, I don’t want to ruin my arthouse credibility.’ But you see a lot of interesting filmmakers get to dip their toes in both. I just hope they’re actually allowed to do the thing that they were hired to do, and actually put their DNA on the films and not just be hired purely symbolically.”

“The lack of directors that looked like me prevented me from deciding to become a filmmaker”

And so now that Yan has done both, the small indie and the major blockbuster, what’s left? Well, first she’ll be writing and directing an adaptation of Jenny Zhang’s bestselling short story collection Sour Heart, for indie studio A24. But there’s also a string of TV shows (including an episode of HBO’s Succession), audio projects and more. “Television is fascinating, because it’s intimate and you get to control it,” Yan says. “With a big studio film you have money and scope, but in television you have time, which is a really luxurious element.”

It seems no format is safe from Yan’s desire to innovate – and her only fear is standing still. “I’m interested in what that next thing looks like, and how it can represent a future of this industry,” she says, “because it’s all changing at such a rapid pace.” Let’s hope she holds on tight.

‘Dead Pigs’ is streaming on MUBI from February 12