Women’s History Month: Cathy Yan

By Kate Boyle

February saw the global release of “Birds of Prey” (2020) one of the first big budget female centric, female made, action movies. There have been other comic book flicks with a female main character and/or a female director, but “Birds of Prey” has five leading ladies, a female director, a female writer, and a female executive producer. If you want to read In Their Own League’s spoiler-free review of the film, written by Reyna Cervantes, you can find it here: Birds of Prey. This fantabulous movie was brought to you by Cathy Yan, a Chinese-American director, screenwriter, and producer. “Birds of Prey” is her first high profile film but it’s not the only thing you should know about her.

Cathy Yan was born in China, grew up in the US, then moved to Hong Kong as a teenager. She came back to the US for college, attending Princeton for her BA, then New York University for her MBA and MFA. She worked briefly as a journalist before diving into the world of short films. Her first feature film, “Dead Pigs” (2018), debuted at Sundance in January 2018 before making its way around various film festivals. It racked up a number of awards- a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, New Directors Competition at the Seattle International Film Festival, Best First Feature at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and a Grand Jury Prize at Dallas International Film Festival (to name a few…)

Yan managed to take things from comic books people love and give it to us on the big screen. She is one of the few directors to truly embrace the source material. If she can do that with a comic book movie, what can she do with original material?

Even though it won or was nominated for many festival awards and received praise from critics, “Dead Pigs” unfortunately has not found US distribution. This means many of us haven’t had a chance to see it. Fingers crossed it finds a home soon so a wider audience can enjoy it. For those unfamiliar with the film. “Dead Pigs” is summarized as “A bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an expat architect, and a disenchanted rich girl converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river toward a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai, China.” The film was written and directed by Yan and is based on a true events.

Yan’s next film was “Birds of Prey”, the eighth film in the DCEU and the first DC film to receive an R rating for its theatrical release. “Birds of Prey” introduced Cathy Yan and her talents as a filmmaker to a much wider audience. She is the first Asian woman to direct a superhero movie and the second woman to direct a film in the DCEU after Patty Jenkins‘ “Wonder Woman” (2017).

Comic books are filled with diverse and interesting characters, I’m glad Cathy Yan chose to use the source material instead of changing well known characters to appeal to more audiences.

Yan made a spectacular film about five interesting and very different female characters. There’s also no male gaze to be found in the entire movie- trust me, I really looked for it all four times I saw it on the big screen. Yan is a self-proclaimed “art history nerd” and this is evident in multiple shots of the film and most obviously on the films poster (a reimagining of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with characters from the film).

“Birds of Prey” also includes multiple characters in the LGBTQ community without appearing to only use them as a way to check “diversity” off the film’s to-do list. Renee Montoya is the first canonically gay character in the DCEU- meaning her character was originally written as a gay woman in the comics and they chose to keep her true to her origins in the film. Comic books are filled with diverse and interesting characters, I’m glad Cathy Yan chose to use the source material instead of changing well known characters to appeal to more audiences. Comics aren’t always a male-driven, good guy versus bad guy story, with an organized plot and a happy ending. Yan managed to take things from comic books people love and give it to us on the big screen. She is one of the few directors to truly embrace the source material. If she can do that with a comic book movie, what can she do with original material?

Cathy Yan on the set of “Birds of Prey” with stars Margot Robbie and Rosie Pere

It looks like Cathy Yan’s next director project is a film called “Sour Hearts” for the beloved film distribution and production company, A24. The movie is based on a short-story collection by Jenny Zhang who will be co-writing with Yan. The film is being described as a coming-of-age story about the immigrant experience in the 1990s from China to New York City, told from the perspective of multiple family members. I could not find a release date for the film, according to IMDB it’s “In Development”.

Cathy Yan is a new and exciting director that more people should be aware of. She has a track record of making interesting films with a diverse cast and crew. I cannot wait to see what the future brings for Yan, I know I will be there opening weekend for any films with her name in the credits.

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