Cathy Yan, the director of “Birds of Prey,” the new DC Comics movie, starring Margot Robbie as the anarchic antiheroine Harley Quinn, became a big-studio filmmaker the same way that Hemingway describes going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. In 2018, shortly after going to Sundance with her first feature, “Dead Pigs,” a satirical look at a rapidly modernizing Shanghai, she landed a meeting with Warner Bros. “I put together a sizzle reel,” Yan recalled the other day, sipping a matcha oat-milk latte in a coffee shop near her apartment, in SoHo. “But it was not your typical sizzle reel.” To a homemade remix of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Yan set a collage of clips that embodied the worst of modern womanhood: “Like, scenes from ‘Bachelor’ proposals, the De Beers diamond commercial, Kim Kardashian’s vampire facial, Fox anchors talking about women, Trump saying ‘Grab ’em by the pussy’ ”—stuff that might make a girl want to smash the patriarchy. “After I showed the video, there was just silence.”
At thirty-three, Yan is the second woman to solo-direct a modern superhero film, after “Wonder Woman” ’s Patty Jenkins. The theme of “Birds” is female revenge, its style an explosion of glam and grunge. Harley, who has been dumped by her boyfriend, the Joker, goes on a rampage around Gotham in short shorts, a rainbow tinsel jacket, and Gwen Stefani pigtails; her weapon of choice is a paintball gun with the force of an AK-47—annihilation by glitter bomb.
Yan’s look is more professional. With her honey-blond bob, tortoiseshell earrings, and navy coat, she could pass for a consultant, a job that she briefly considered when she was an undergrad at Princeton. “Everyone was doing it,” she explained. (Remember, kids: friends don’t let friends apply to McKinsey.) “I remember my case interview. I was, like, ‘I don’t care how many Ping-Pong balls are in the vending machine.’ ” Instead, she went to work at the Wall Street Journal and eventually landed a position reporting in Hong Kong. Improbably, the Journal may be responsible for her film career. “Digital was just starting, and they literally shoved a video camera in my hand and said, ‘You’re young, shoot something,’ ” Yan said.
Stepping out into a cold rain, she strolled toward Chrystie Street. “I’m a global wanderer,” she said—she was born in China, grew up in Virginia, and went to high school in Hong Kong—“but New York is my home.” She based her Gotham on the city of the eighties, a burg with grit and heart: “I’m sick of seeing post-apocalyptic visions of Gotham, where everyone’s homeless and being all sad.” On Grand Street, she stopped to join a crowd gathered on a handball court. An amplified voice addressed the group in Mandarin. “Oh yeah, I forgot, happy Chinese New Year,” Yan said. “I always feel so bad, because it’s hard to celebrate it in America, and there are so many freaking days of it.”
She approached a stand selling Chinese-style beef jerky, produced in Queens. One of the venders, dressed in an embroidered red jacket and a crown, with a phony Confucian beard—Caishen, the Chinese god of wealth—announced, “Trump said, ‘American-made.’ We back him up!”
She exchanged holiday salutations with the man. “What I just said there literally means ‘Hope that you can make more money.’ The Chinese love money, it’s just a matter of fact.”
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Yan spent her early childhood with her grandparents in Shanghai. Her father had been granted a visa to study sociology in the United States, a rarity in pre-Tiananmen China, and left before Yan was born. Her mother followed two years later. Yan didn’t make the move until she was four. “I met my parents at the airport,” she said. Her next project, for A24, is an adaptation of “Sour Heart,” Jenny Zhang’s 2017 book of stories about Chinese immigrants growing up in New York.
Yan has a lot of family in China, and she visits often. “I spent a fair amount of time in Beijing,” she said. “It was the big, happening place. I was there for the Olympics. There were these really cheesy bars we would go to. I had a favorite night club called Chocolate that felt like it was run by the Russian mob. It was very free, if that makes any sense.”
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Outside Wu’s Wonton King, Yan struggled to light some sparklers she had just bought. An elderly passerby stopped to cup his hands around Yan’s, shielding the flame from the elements. “He says it’s raining and it’s windy,” Yan said, when he’d left. “There’s a metaphor in here somewhere.” She produced a party popper from a bag and began to twist. Tiny hundred-dollar bills shot into the air. Yan squealed and took a photo. Then she headed off, shedding miniature Benjamins as she walked. Maybe there was a metaphor in there, too. ♦