Issue #42: All-Stars 🌟
Dead Pigs + A League Of Their Own
Life as of late has felt like a new season, or even a new year: spring is officially here (check your local temps), vaccines are being distributed (get yours!), and suddenly the whole world just seems a little brighter (wild summer, here we come).
So perhaps it’s thematically appropriate that this week we’re talking about two bright spots in film, each gleaming and warm in their own way. First up, Zosha on Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan’s beautiful feature film debut that’s finally online. Then we’ve got Cate on the tried-and-true classic A League of their Own, and the way it sticks with you. Happy reading, happy watching, and warm, safe days to you and yours! ✨
Zosha on Dead Pigs
Stop me if you know this one: A pig farmer, a salon owner, a busboy, a rich girl, and an American ex-pat walk into a demolition site—actually, no that’s not fair. We shouldn’t start at the end of Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan’s 2018 feature film debut that’s getting new life (and release) on Mubi. It wouldn’t make any sense.
I’ll back up: Across a sleek and evolving Shanghai, Dead Pigs traces the stories of five loners, whose lives as they know it are going topsy turvy while thousands of dead pigs float down the Huangpu River. The latter part of the plot is based on a true story from the mid-2010s when farmers started dumping their deceased swine en masse into the river. Like most good stories, there was more to that the “2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident” than meets the eye. Burying bodies became too cumbersome or expensive with the mass amount of pig death, and so desperate times created desperate measures.
That story is the backdrop for Yan’s, which uses the mass death as a prelude to our main story. As the five strands of Dead Pigs swirl around each other, they forge connections, and each disassociates somewhat with the lives they know. As one might expect from a premise with an ensemble cast and a setting of mass animal death, the movie’s tone takes a sharp, almost clinically satirical eye to the farce of modern life. How, amidst a sea of tragedy, can someone hope to make ends meet? To grow? To thrive? To live?
Not unnoticed by Yan is the shifting landscape of Shanghai, which in some people’s eyes is “modernizing,” and in others is simply losing its heart. Such is the case for Candy Wang (Vivian Wu), the salon owner whose turquoise house — the one she was born in and lived in all her life — now stands stark in a sea of teardowns. While her neighbors all sold, their former houses mere piles of bricks she gazes out on from her veranda, she stands resolute, hoping to keep her life how she knew it.
It’s a sense of place that permeates every inch of Dead Pigs. Yan’s keen eye (as seen in Birds of Prey) never wastes a single cell of the frame, packing in details large and small. When I think back on Dead Pigs, I remember most viscerally the vivid lushness, the soft glare of the neon lights, the rain just as clear on a window as the person on the other side. It’s as if the frame is a garden and Yan’s camera is sunshine, fondly encouraging and enriching everything we see. Whether it’s a worn leopard-print robe or a sleek and shiny bomber jacket, everything shot feels utterly scrumptious.
Although the stories seem disparate, her innate sense for visuals balances out the grounded quietness of each story. This is not a flashy Babel-esque crossover about how our lives bounce off each other, but rather a rumination on getting by in a world that no longer quite knows what to do with you. “Late-stage capitalism” has grown so shabby as to be trite, but set against the personal, lower-stakes vantage points on a changing city(/country/world) Dead Pigs proves the idea is never quite as tired as we’d like it to be. Candy’s fight for her home, or a farmer’s for his funds, or a young boy for a rich girl’s heart — none of these things is our fight, per se. But with the loose but poignant focus of Yan’s story, it feels idiosyncratic and localized in a way few films are able. You don’t know their story (and you certainly aren’t sure where it’s going) but you’ll know what it means to feel tossed up by the capitalistic salad tongs.
So I say again: A pig farmer, a salon owner, a busboy, a rich girl, and an American ex-pat walk into a demolition site...
Cate on A League Of Their Own
There are some movies that just stick in your craw, and for me, A League Of Their Own is one of them. I’m on the record as “not a sports fan” but I’ve always loved sports movies for the simple reason that they tell you who to root for. And with this film, director Penny Marshall gives us a whole team of characters to invest in, while also providing a satisfying familial arc.
I hadn’t seen this film since I was a child, but the one thing that I remembered was the shot of Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) dropping the ball in the final game. I knew it was the film’s climax but I didn’t remember why or what the context was. Rewatching it as an adult who is also a film critic, I can appreciate just how meaningful that scene is and how much it ties up the story in a nice little bow.
A League Of Their Own is a story about the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but it is also a story about sisters. Kit Keller (Lori Petty) is tired of being in her sister’s shadow. Dottie is older, prettier, and better at baseball, and Kit feels neglected and overlooked in comparison to her skill and beauty. But when a recruiter comes around to get them to play professional baseball while the men are away at war, it’s Kit who is adamant that this is her big chance to shine without her sister. Dottie is good at baseball and she loves it, but she’s far more traditional than Kit. She’s one of the few married women on the team, and all she wants is to get back to her husband once he’s safely returned from war.
One of the things this film does so well is spell out just how novel this league of athletes was. At the height of the second world war, as women were being called on to fill the positions left behind by the men who had gone overseas, these players filled an essential need too. But as is unfortunately too often still true, the fact of their womanhood meant that their skills were less interesting than their looks. One character’s entire arc is that she is ugly because she was raised by a single dad, but being around women makes her pretty enough for a man to marry her. (Naturally, she just needed a brush and clothing that fit, but I digress). Funded by a candy-baron in an effort to make money in an economic downturn, the players are called on to hawk pantyhose and face powder as they run the bases. Women be shopping amirite? But the team also gives them freedoms we take for granted today. Short of a few religious zealots and TERF-separatists, the moral panic over women in sports has abated, and it’s in part because of women like this.
That all serves to bring the tension of the relationship between Kit and Dottie to the fore. Kit is plain and forgotten, but she is a hell of a pitcher, and she just wants to be recognized for this one undeniable skill. Dottie is perfect without even trying—without even wanting to be. The resentment Kit feels manifests in tantrums and unfair accusations, but it’s also understandable to be jealous of a sister whose presence means you’re always an afterthought.
When one last fight lands them on separate teams, their final showdown in the championship serves as a test of their loyalty and skills. Dottie, a catcher, never misses a ball, and Kit can’t bat for shit. But of course, the game comes down to Dottie catching Kit’s ball, and… she doesn’t. She drops the ball, literally. And Kit finally outshines her sister. For some reason, I had always thought it was something Dottie did intentionally—a chance to let her sister have the spotlight because she wanted it so badly. But instead, it’s a genuine triumph on her part. Skills honed outside the shadow of the better sister.
A League Of Their Own is my favourite kind of mid-century jaunt because it resurrects a since-forgotten bit of history and crafts a compelling narrative to go along with it. And it’s full of the kinds of details that are detestable as they are true. Whether it’s the men taking for granted that all the women can read or nakedly stating that they only want players men will gawk at, none of it detracts from the fact that women are good at the game. They love it, they excel at it, and they aren’t somehow less womanly because of that.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: A peek into a subject I am obsessed with: fit models. The history (and tricky line) of the Asian American character actor. Season 5 of The Expanse was about coping with abuse. The power in televising Derek Chauvin’s trial. What does Marvel want with TV anyhow? A meditation on Paul McCartney, time travel, and McCartney.