Incredible Women

Director Cathy Yan on breaking barriers and making universal movies

CATHY YAN might be best known for helming the 2020 Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey, but now the world is finally getting to see the debut movie that won her that Hollywood gig. The multifaceted, genre-defying filmmaker speaks to KATIE BERRINGTON about following her instincts, raising the expectations for representation and how art-house cinema is gaining ground in people’s homes

Cathy Yan

Most will be familiar with Cathy Yan’s second feature film – last year’s DC Comics female-led superhero spin-off Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. But the Chinese-American filmmaker’s darkly satirical, Sundance-winning debut is, at last, coming to a screen (very) near us, as it gets its global release on streaming platform Mubi this month.

Inspired by the extraordinary real-life 2013 event in which 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River, Yan’s aptly named Dead Pigs was actually made four years ago. But in some ways, it feels more relevant now than ever. “It’s so much about the connective tissue between people and the interconnectedness of our world,” says Yan. “We assume our decisions to be our own and not to have that much impact on other people, but this year we’ve really realized how closely connected we all are, not just with our neighbors and our friends, but globally. In that way, it’s incredibly weird and prescient to see how the [movie’s] theme has carried through and is maybe now more impactful.”

Weaving together the lives of a group of characters (played by Vivian Wu, Meng Li, Mason Lee, Haoyu Yang, David Rysdahl and Zazie Beetz), the result is a quick-witted social satire, featuring English, Shanghainese and Mandarin dialogue, telling a universal story of how humanity fares against drastic social change.

Yan’s two features to date couldn’t appear to be much further from each other – from “a small indie film to a big studio movie”. Her experiences on each of them did have their differences (the resources and budgets, for a start), but the New York-based director found that the craft of her filmmaking changed very little. “That’s why this idea that, somehow, studios are taking on a big risk hiring these unknown filmmakers [is] like, ‘No, actually, they’re just directors, and if they’re able to make their first movie on a shoestring budget when no one believed in them, then they can probably handle [this],’” she says, laughing.

Dead Pigs was just pure, guttural instinct. I didn’t know what I was doing, and in many ways, I benefited from that, by just allowing the pure reaction of what I was interested in, what my taste was and what I found to be fascinating. It was deeply personal, and I never really second-guessed myself, because there wasn’t really anywhere to go and there was very little to lose, as well,” she recalls of how she felt at the time. “That’s why I’m always fascinated by the first feature of any director… It’s kind of the purest form of themselves and it takes so much to get it done.”

The two movies have caught either side of the past year’s cataclysmic disruptions. Birds of Prey’s cinematic release was cut short due to the start of the pandemic and, while Dead Pigs premiered at Sundance in 2018 (where it won the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting), it is only now receiving its global release. Yan feels that this “new world” circulation could actually suit a movie as nuanced as this, though.

Haoyu Yang and Vivian Wu, in robe and curlers, in the movie Dead Pigs, directed by Cathy Yan

“A traditional distribution method or structure for a film like this might have put it in a box that it doesn’t know what to do with. Now, anyone in the world can discover it and watch it in their own time.” (She does, however, hope that no one attempts to watch it on their phone: “That would make me a little sad.”)

While Yan misses the “shared communal theater experience” of cinema, there is an intimacy that comes with the rise of people watching from home, she says, which allows filmmakers to interact more closely with their audience. And the writer and director also appreciates the greater accessibility it brings to smaller, independent works. Recalling how, as a child in Northern Virginia, her family would drive to the closest art-house cinema – “and you only really did that if you cared about such things” – she welcomes anything that could take steps to “breaking down the barriers of distribution”.

I want to continue making sure that women are seen holistically – not the Madonna and not the whore, but really who we are and everything that entails

These aren’t the only barriers Yan feels are being broken down with broadening access to a wider array of entertainment. She cites the success of Oscar-winning Parasite (“not for Foreign Language film, but Best Picture”), and the phenomenon of shows such as Lupin and Narcos in raising up the accomplishments of subtitled creations, which have traditionally been deemed “inferior”.

A driving ethos behind Yan’s work has always been “that we’re all human and we share this shared humanity”, explaining the universality of many themes that she deals with – what happens to people’s psyches, for instance, when there is so much change happening in the world around them.

She has broken down barriers herself – in directing Birds of Prey, Yan became the first Asian woman, and only the second female director ever, to helm a Hollywood blockbuster superhero film. “I genuinely feel humbled that I was given this opportunity and that I get to do this – and that there is some significance of my hiring that goes beyond me,” Yan reflects, while acknowledging that she’s looking forward to the day such conversations are no longer necessary.

The director has seen a shift towards greater representation and diversity of storytelling in recent years (“When we were trying to sell Dead Pigs in 2018, it was definitely difficult, for all these reasons – it being an unfamiliar type of film and a subtitled one at that”), but she is clear that more steps are required to make long-lasting and meaningful change.

“Maybe women can start directing movies that don’t have anything to do with women!” she says. “[And] we need more female-driven content out there. It’s like, we can turn a male role into a female role and that’s easy, there, done. But the next level is hiring women and women of color into these creative roles, like directors or writers. But then the third step is that it has to feel real and institutionalized – rather than just hiring for show.”

“We need to really support the best filmmakers and, more often, I think they are women and they are people of color. And it makes sense that they would be, because – certainly for me – I think having that slightly different perspective on the world and observing it from afar has allowed me to be better at what I do,” considers Yan, who grew up between China, the US and Hong Kong. “I’ve never felt fully at home anywhere, and when you have this sort of distance from the world, you become an observer – and that’s what filmmaking is, you’re just observing things.”

This translates in front of the camera, where “we need more flawed female characters, we need more flawed people of color characters,” she says of pushing forward the future of truly representative filmmaking. “I want to continue making sure that women are seen holistically – not the Madonna and not the whore, but really who we are and everything that entails.”

As a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, Yan’s observational, journalistic eye is evident and she’s keen to incorporate “real-world repercussions” where possible into her body of work. “Not to say everything has to be a documentary or pulled from headlines as much as Dead Pigs[But] I find it to be a responsibility of mine to create entertainment, as you will, that has some sense of education or conversation starter to it.”

Dead Pigs is available to watch on Mubi now

Birds of Prey (2020) directed by Cathy Yan and starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain

The person featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown