Writer-director James Wan is Malaysia’s biggest Hollywood success story by a mile – and his road to getting there gave him an unexpectedly personal connection to his latest hit film, the superhero blockbuster Aquaman. (Read our review here.)
The 41-year-old says he knows what it is like to straddle two cultures just like his half-human, half-aquatic hero does. And it is because of his experience as a Chinese-Malaysian growing up in Perth, Australia, where the Kuching-born Wan emigrated to with his family when he was seven.
The character’s feelings of not quite fitting in in either world are “something I understand as well as an Asian guy born in Malaysia who grew up in Australia”, he says. And despite “having such a strong Australian upbringing, I’ve retained my Chinese/Malaysian heritage as well”.
Wan believes his upbringing shaped how he directed and co-wrote the film, which broke box office records in China when it scored a US$94mil (RM393mil) when it opened two weeks ago – the best debut for a Warner Bros title in the country.
“It definitely gave me a very specific point of view about how to approach this character – and the fact that (lead actor) Jason (Momoa) is himself biracial meant we were sort of symbiotically on the same page.
“That Aquaman is half-Atlantean, half surface-dweller, gave me a starting-off point for his character and allowed me to take him on this journey to finally accept who he is,” Wan explains.
By the end of the film, Aquaman embraces his two different cultures. The director says: “That’s always a fun one for a film-maker – to actually have something to say in the films that they make.”
With this and other recent movies, Wan continues to make inroads into the global film industry – not just for himself but for other Asian talent too.
In 2004, he directed and co-wrote the indie horror movie Saw – a sleeper hit that launched an eight-movie franchise (2004 to 2017).
He then went on to helm two more film series – The Conjuring (2013 and 2016) and Insidious (2011 and 2013) – and was credited with spearheading a profitable renaissance in low-budget, mainstream horror.
With the blockbuster success of Furious 7, the seventh instalment in the adrenalised Fast & Furious saga, he proved he had graduated from horror to big-budget properties.
It was also one of his first big films with an Asian actor in a prominent role: Korean-American performer Sung Kang, who played a key member of Vin Diesel’s character’s fast-driving crew.
Wan – who cast Korean-American star Randall Park (Fresh Off The Boat, 2015 to present) and Canadian-Chinese actor Ludi Lin (Power Rangers, 2017) in Aquaman – says that not too long ago, he might have been queried by studio bosses about why he wanted to put an Asian face in such a film.
But those conversations are becoming easier.
“Things are changing – or at the very least, they are moving in the correct direction. The ship is sometimes a bit stubborn, but you’ve got to steer it,” he says.
“Ludi Lin, Randall Park – whenever I can get the opportunity to put these Asian actors that I admire, I love to get them in there.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network