Dead Pigs (2021)

Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.

In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.

All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.

-Brandon Ledet

Birds of Prey (2020)

It took me over a thousand rambling words to defend the much-reviled DC supervillain team-up Suicide Squad as Passably Okay back when it was first released in 2016. It was an ugly mess of a film when considered in its comic-book worldbuilding context, but as an outsider to that end of nerdom I found it amusing as a Hot Topic-costumed shoot-em-up action flick. Where I was really out of step with the critical consensus on that film was believing that it was saved, not ruined, by its studio tinkering. Suicide Squad was edited to Hell and back, removing as much of meathead director David Ayer’s personal vision and footage of Jared Leto’s meth clinic Joker as the studio could manage with while still walking away with a “coherent” picture. The genius of this post-production tinkering is that it highlighted the two sole items of interest in Suicide Squad’s arsenal: its mall-goth flavored gun violence and Margot Robbie’s electric performance as the Joker’s anarchic moll, Harley Quinn (mostly through Robbie’s already-established chemistry with Will Smith, sans Leto). Brilliantly, Suicide Squad’s spinoff sequel Birds of Prey (produced by Robbie herself) has further isolated & extrapolated those two morsels of entertainment value to the point where my moderate enjoyment of the previous picture is now obsolete. In fact, most superhero media of the past couple decades (or at least since Joel Schumacher transformed Batman into a gay cartoon) now feels obsolete in a post-Birds of Prey world. This is exactly what I’m looking for in modern superhero pictures but rarely, if ever, receive.

Birds of Prey is just as narratively messy as Suicide Squad, but this time it’s an intentional result of its protagonist’s loopy POV rather than a toxic-waste byproduct of studio interference. Its “story” mimics a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled timeline assemblage, but only because its narrator is too far detached from reality to relay a linear tale. As a result, nothing about its diamond heist MacGuffin plot or running-from-the-law dramatic tension registers as especially important. This is more of a bubblegum pop breakup song than it is a feature film, catching up with the violent-crime clownstress Harley Quinn in the immediate hours after being dumped by her abusive, manipulative boyfriend The Joker. Devastated but liberated, Harley lashes out at the world at large in grand displays of heartbreak: getting blackout drunk at the local gangster bar; exploding the chemical refinery where she used to loiter with her boo; forming a titular girl gang with fellow violent eccentrics; and shotgunning entre cans of Cheese Wiz directly into her mouth. Those grand displays of heartache announce to the local crime world that she’s no longer under the Joker’s “protection,” making it open season for any and all dirtbag men she’s wronged over the years to seek revenge for past grievances. As her road to self-fulfilling singledom and her clashes with every scummy bro in Gotham pile up, the movie ultimately becomes a thin excuse to watch Margot Robbie kick the shit out of nameless men, model sparkly costumes, and mug directly at the camera. What I’m saying is it’s a delight.

The slapstick action-comedy of this grim, R-rated novelty is as hyperviolent as it is hyperfemme. Harley Quinn smashes men’s faces & kneecaps with wild abandon, but she’s most likely to do so with a canon-fired glitter bomb or a bejeweled baseball bat. She commands the same anarchic, glammed-up energy as Bugs Bunny in drag, and the entire movie around her has no choice but to warp itself around that Looney sensibility. I struggle to explain exactly why that “Ain’t I a stinker?“ pranksterism works for me here when I found it brutally unfunny in the Deadpool movies, except maybe in that the wardrobe is more exciting and Robbie, unlike Ryan Reynolds, can actually land a joke. It might just be that it’s more of a refreshing novelty to watch women behave badly than men, as they so rarely get the chance. When asked why she’s such a self-absorbed, explosively violent monster in the film’s third act, Harley muses, “I guess I’m just not a good person.” It’s likely that freedom to misbehave so flagrantly is what drew Robbie back in to revive the role despite the avalanche of negative Suicide Squad critiques (this time with a female creative team – director Cathy Yan & writer Christina Hodson). Whatever the case, the devious humor she finds in this mayhem absolutely lights up the screen, and the only times the movie momentarily stumbles are in the occasional scenes where anyone who’s not Harley highjacks the POV. I can apparently watch her tear through sequin outfits & broken bones for hours without flagging in enthusiasm. Every minute she’s onscreen is pure, chaotic joy.

More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.

-Brandon Ledet