When Warner Bros. announced that Cathy Yan would be directing Birds of Prey, many fans were quick to look up her feature film debut, Dead Pigs. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, where it won a Special Award Prize for Ensemble Acting. Now, 3 years after its critically acclaimed debut, Dead Pigs is finally streaming for American audiences on MUBIstarting on February 12.
While many successful indie directors (Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank) are given the reins to massive franchises (Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, respectively), female directors are rarely rewarded with such a giant platform. Yans hiring made her the first Asian woman to direct a studio superhero film and only the second female director ever to direct a superhero film. But upon watching Dead Pigs, you realize immediately that Yan is a bold and innovative new voice in filmmaking.
Inspired by the shocking 2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident, the film is an ensemble story in the vein of Nashville or Magnolia, which follows the journey of several characters as they struggle with wealth inequality and the rapid modernization of China. The film is both a razor-sharp satire of the affects of globalization, and a deeply grounded drama about family and relationships.
The film stars Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club), Mason Lee (The Hangover Pt II), Zazie Beetz (Joker), Meng Li (Young Love Lost), Haoyu Yang (The Wandering Earth), and David Rysdahl (Nine Days).
We talked to Yan about Dead Pigs, working on Birds of Prey, and her career as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal.
The Mary Sue: Dead Pigs is such an ambitious debut film. How long was the journey from conception of the idea to shooting?
Cathy Yan: I think about 3 years, I wrote the first draft of the script during my final year of film school in a screenwriting class, and that came to me really quickly, and it took a long time to get it made because, you know, I had no real credits to my name, I was a first-time filmmaker. It went through multiple labs which was super helpful, and Ive always, having gone through that whole process of film school and then being a nobody, and just all of that, I equate it to almost like a video game, where you have to keep collecting coins until someone will take a chance on you, and thats kind of what had to happen.
So I spent 2-3 years just part-time working on it, trying to chase down any opportunities for financing and in the meantime, Id made a short film version of it just to see if I could even do it or do something in China. What really helped was getting connected with Jia Zhangke (producer on Dead Pigs/director of The World, Still Life) my executive producer, I always admired his work and he has such an amazing reputation, so once that happened and he signed on, that definitely helped us get the movie made.
TMS: The film has already been released in China, what was the reception like there?
CY: You know, Im not really sure! I think I was in the midst of shooting Birds of Prey when it did come out, and you know, for me my hope was always, if it can find an audience, then thats amazing! I think that in many ways its also a very outward-looking film that there would be quite an interested audience outside of China, and frankly thats how most arthouse films in China work, because its quite a nascent industry, theres not a lot of support for indies there. The market is dominated by very large blockbusters and theres also the government, and those sorts of controls too, which make it really difficult for a strong independent film scene.
TMS: Before you began directing, you were a journalist at the Wall Street Journal. How does your journalism career inform your voice as a director, since both jobs are essentially storytelling?
CY: Absolutely, it informs everything, I really think so. I dont really think that Im no longer a journalist in a way, I just think that like, I love the craft and the act of filmmaking, but Im telling the same stories that I would tell if I could talk about journalism, just in a different format. And sometimes its nice and liberating to be able to fictionalize things, but Im constantly inspired by the world around us and whats actually happening, and Im very curious about that and trying to unpack the headlines, so most of my work has that sense of timeliness, and I want it to feel relevant and thats what Im curious about.
With Dead Pigs, I was very curious about the dead pigs themselves, but more so what drives people to want to dump pigs in the river and how did that come about and what are the repercussions and what does that say about us as humans, and what does that say about what motivates us, and where society is, and thats kind of the driving force of Dead Pigs but also I think a lot of what I want to do.
TMS: The film is a tightrope balance between the humor and absurdity of the piece and the more grounded emotional moments. Was that tone something you envisioned from the very beginning, or did it come to you later in the process?
CY: A little bit of both, some of the humor was just found on the day, on the set. Like the chanting women outside the salon, they just existed at the salon we scouted and wanted to shoot in, and I just knew that it spoke so much to the film and is so absurd and bizarre, we actually found a lot of that while we were there, that is what I love about China and why I wanted to make a movie there, was just this brashness and craziness and this emphatic earnestness and kitschiness that I wanted to really capture. I hadnt really seen it before, and it always tickles me, but it also fascinates me. And I think that generally what I love too, I think theres always comedy in the tragedy and probably, I laugh at a lot of inappropriate things because of it, but thats just always been what Ive found to be true to myself, to my voice, and my sense of humor.
(Claudette Barius/DC Comics)
TMS: For many of us at The Mary Sue, Birds of Prey was one of our favorite films from 2020. Was there anything you wanted to put include in the film that just didnt make the cut?
CY: There always is, right, you keep going oh I wish I got this or I wish I did that. It was a really tough challenge, much like Dead Pigs in a way, because youre just balancing a lot of things tonally but also frankly the storylines, and it was a very stuffed script in terms of that. We had 5 protagonists and 2 antagonists, so theres a lot of things I wish, for me, Im mostly focused on character and character development, but when youre making an action movie as well and you have to play within the rules of that genre and those expectations. Whats funny is that you get even fewer minutes to develop character and tell the human side of the story, so thats just something that I had to juggle with the entire time, like well actually 20 minutes of the movie is just action, and theres some great character moments in action, but its still action. So I think that was just the big challenge of Birds was just kind of, you know, balance all of these opposing factors.
Dead Pigs premieres exclusively on MUBI on February 12.
(featured image: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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