For three years, Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs has been an elusive mystery. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 to rave reviews and taking home a special jury prize, the filmmaker’s debut feature, which weaves together the lives of six strangers in rapidly gentrifying Shanghai, languished in distribution limbo. No one was willing to take a risk on a Chinese-language feature with no big-named American stars. (Zazie Beetz, who co-stars as Angie, a recruiter for a very unusual modeling agency, wasn’t yet the indie queen she is today.)
Instead of giving up, Yan used the film as her calling card, sending it out to curious viewers via a Vimeo link. It eventually caught the eye of Margot Robbie, who tapped the director to helm her Harley Quinn spinoff movie, Birds of Prey. During the Birds press tour, Dead Pigs developed a bit of a cult following, as fans got curious about the film that launched Yan’s meteoric career in Hollywood, one that still feels unusual for women directors. And still, no one could really see it — until now. On February 12, Dead Pigs finally premiered in a global digital release on arthouse streaming site Mubi, which curates must-see movies for film lovers from old Hollywood classics to indie favorites and non-English features.
In a post-Parasite world, a film like Dead Pigs doesn’t feel like as much of a gamble. Bong-Joon Ho’s runaway hit shattered barriers when it won Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards, belatedly proving that stories could be culturally specific and also resonate with a broader audience.
Loosely based on a real 2013 incident that saw 16,000 dead pigs suddenly appear in Shanghai’s Huangpu river after being infected with a mysterious illness, Dead Pigs ironically now feels eerily relevant. Like Parasite, it touches on the absurdity inherent in capitalism run amok, but with the signature flourishes that made Birds of Prey dazzle. Textured backgrounds, neon lighting, mouthwatering food shots, and a crew of opposites finding common ground — Yan’s style is already firmly established in her indie debut. Dead Pigs brings together a pig farmer (Haoyu Yang), a beauty salon owner (Vivian Wu), an American architect (David Rysdah), an ambitious busboy (Mason Lee), and a spoiled rich girl (Meng Li) in a tale that will leave you laughing and crying, often at once.
With her second and first film out in the world (in that order), Yan is ready to take on new challenges. She’s working on a new film, Sour Heart, with A24, and announced that she’d be adapting Rachel Khong's short story, The Freshening, marking a foray into sci-fi. She’s also making the jump to TV: Yan will be directing an episode on the highly anticipated third season of HBO’s Succession. And in order to maintain control over her own creative vision, she recently launched a production company with Ash Sarohia, an old college friend of hers, called Rewild. It seems the old saying is true: Good things come to those who wait.
Refinery29: It’s been a week since Dead Pigs’ online release — what’s been your takeaway watching people experience it in real time?
Cathy Yan: “I don’t really read reviews, but because I’ve been on Twitter, I get a bunch of user reactions, and I enjoy that more because it’s so real. It’s honest, there’s nothing else behind that opinion. It has spoken to people in a way that I’m delighted by. The primary audience for this movie was a teeny tiny subset of people that had experienced China in that time period from 2000 to 2010. I always knew those people would understand the movie and get it, but what’s been nice to see is just how much it’s spoken to people around the world, and it feels much more universal even though it is subtitled and long, and may not be the flashiest or most commercial thing that’s ever hit them. There've been a lot of really nuanced reactions and that’s the most interesting to me — not, What did you think of it, but What are the feelings or memories that it brought up? Someone said: “I laughed and cried,” and I was like Perfect!”
There’s been a lot of debate about the streaming release’s impact on the industry and movie theaters in particular, but there is something to be said about its ability to make indie filmmakers’ work visible and accessible to people who would otherwise never have seen them. How do you feel about it?
“This year has really illuminated that. I remember the pressure about [Birds of Prey] opening weekend and hitting those box office projections. It doesn’t serve anybody. It’s just a different way of experiencing cinema, and I think it’s worthwhile in its own right. There’s always going to be something about seeing an epic masterpiece for the first time, and letting that be a memory.
“I was watching Mank, and one of the lines is something about how movies are essentially just memories. By the time you finish it, it’s already a memory. But does it have to be? What if it’s more about the longevity of a piece, and thinking about it, encouraging someone else to watch it, or watching it again. Or even stopping it! I think it’s interesting to have the ability as a viewer to stop the movie. I used to think as a filmmaker that it was awful and getting in the way of that pure viewing experience, but there is something exciting about this new way that we’re interacting with the art form and hopefully in some ways it preserves the art form. It allows these movies to be seen, and seen in a different way.”
One of the reasons you were given for Dead Pigs having difficulty nailing down distribution is that it’s not an English-language film. I wonder if you think attitudes towards that have shifted, especially given the whole debate right now regarding Minari’s Golden Globe nomination in the Foreign Language Film category.
“It’s only going to get more like this. When Dead Pigs went to Sundance it was still a bit of a rarity, in that it was mostly in Chinese but there was English. Within Sundance, we were not in the U.S. Dramatic competition. Subsequently, Lulu Wang ended up making The Farewell, and in terms of Chinese to English ratio, it’s almost the same as Dead Pigs. But she also had producers who were American, and it was in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance a year or two after.
“Parasite is a very different thing, but that happened. And then Minari happened. And inevitably, it’s going to continue because you have this new generation of American filmmakers that are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves and have this bicultural look at language. A lot of the films that are most central to American cinema have dealt with that dual identity. The Godfather is about immigrants! It’s deeply unfair to relegate us to foreign language because we are the future of American cinema.”
“What it means to be American is to have a conversation with your home country as much as it is about the American flag. Let’s grab back that definition!”
You recently announced that you had formed your own production company, Rewild. Was developing your own projects always a goal?
“Honestly, I think things happened so quickly for me after Dead Pigs, and into Birds of Prey, that I didn’t really think about what the next step is, and how best to create longevity and sustainability for my own career. I realized that a lot of actresses were specifically doing that because they wanted to be able to create work for themselves and support other actresses so that there’s good work out there for women. I feel similarly, in that I’m very much a writer-director, I love the process of development and finding stories that are interesting, figuring out what the right take and angle is — it’s very journalistic in that way. After Birds, it was a more conscious decision to fortify myself within the industry so that I can protect myself and I have a little bit more say in the work that I do going forward.”
Did you run against obstacles in terms of getting your vision across while making Birds of Prey in a way you hadn’t with Dead Pigs?
“Absolutely. That’s without a doubt, when you’re doing your first feature and it’s purely your own vision. We were lucky because we had such a small budget that our financiers just left us alone. And we edited it in my living room. The flip side is the completely different experience, when there’s so much pressure on a movie like Birds of Prey — a lot of business and economic pressure, and a lot of stakeholders. Margot [Robbie] and Christina [Hodson] had been developing that story for two to three years before I even came in. I felt very lucky to be able to take that to the finish line. But what I’ve learned is that I don’t want to be a director for hire. I just like the writing process too much, and it’s so much a part of filmmaking to me, that to separate that out and give that over to someone else, and come on a little later in the process felt a little unnatural to me.”
This touches on something that feels like the natural next in the conversation about gender equality in Hollywood. First, we just want women to be hired. But now, we’re past that. It’s about why they’re being hired — for what and on what terms?
“It’s a more difficult conversation because it’s more nuanced. It’s easy to say ‘Look, we’ve hired this many women,’ or ‘We’ve turned that male role into a female role.’ Women sniff that out; we know what really speaks to us rather than what feels like a sad attempt to corner that female market. It’s a conversation that has to speak to who the producers [are]behind the writers, directors, and talent. Do they have their own production vehicles that can help them be a part of that process all the way through? Are the right pillars of support there for their careers so that they can be protected and have a long-term career? The phenomenon that I really hope will cease to exist is the many women who have made incredible first features, or incredible second features and then it takes them like 10 years to make anything else — that is a problem. There are so many more conversations to be had, and we should not yet be patting ourselves on the back because we’ve hired a few women. Like, Oh really, lean in? Believe me, I’m leaning the fuck in!”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.