James Wan: The Malaysian-Chinese director giving Hollywood its first brown superhero
The Australia-raised Aquaman filmmaker tells CNA Lifestyle in Manila that everything he’s done in his career has been about breaking stereotypes.
James Wan was all smiles when I walked into the room. "Singapore in the house!" he exclaimed. His effusiveness was certainly welcomed – we are neighbours, after all.
Well, we were neighbours. The 41-year-old Hollywood director was born in Kuching, Sarawak, a stone's throw away from Singapore.
Wan is arguably Hollywood’s trailblazing director of the moment.
I’m not out there making kung fu movies, you know what I mean?
From the low-budget gore genre with Saw – the series he started in 2003 that has since expanded into one of the most successful horror franchises of all time – to horror hits like Insidious and The Conjuring, to the action tent-pole that was Furious 7, Wan’s trajectory has been nothing short of breathtaking.
He’s an Asian filmmaker of Malaysian-Chinese descent in Hollywood, breaking stereotypes – without letting continued box-office success get to his head.
My heart swells with Asian pride.
The Malaysian-born, Australian-raised director at the helm of Aquaman – the highly anticipated US$200-million (S$274-million) DC superhero movie starring Jason Momoa – told CNA Lifestyle that he was cognisant of the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood, and everything he has done in his career was “about breaking doors, breaking stereotypes”.
“I’m not out there making kung fu movies, you know what I mean?” said Wan. “My career started out making horror films, and I don’t know many Asian directors who make successful horror movies in Hollywood.”
When I get to create my own world, my characters get to play within my own rules.
“I hate stereotypes," he continued. "And so that’s always something I’m trying to do. And now I’m getting the chance to do a superhero movie, and again that’s something that’s different.”
We point out another heartening difference: Aquaman, as embodied by Momoa – a Pacific Islander of Hawaiian and white descent – is Hollywood's first brown-skinned big-screen superhero.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?" said Wan. "The character of Aquaman himself – he’s the very definition of bi-racial. He’s half-Atlantean, half surface-dweller. You have a character here who feels like he doesn’t belong in either world to begin with. That’s how he is in the comic books. And that was something that really stood out for me.”
“And then when you lay the casting of Jason, with his mixed-heritage on top of that, it feels like a synchronicity that was meant to happen.”
Wan continues to embrace his Malaysian-Chinese heritage, taking pride in the immigrant-style hustle that has defined his continued success in Tinseltown's big leagues. His own upbringing – moving from Sarawak to Perth when he was seven years old – "allowed me to get a bigger perspective,” he said thoughtfully.
You have a character here who feels like he doesn’t belong in either world... That was something that really stood out for me.
“I think what I bring to all my projects is that I try to look at all my films slightly out-of-the-box,” said Wan. “Trying to find a little way to break with tradition. And that’s the same thing I did with Aquaman. It’s a superhero movie but it doesn’t play like a superhero film. It plays more like a classic, adventure-quest, fantasy movie – that just so happens to have a superhero character in it.”
And his “break with tradition” seems to be paying off.
Aquaman has already taken in nearly US$100 million at the Chinese box office. With the film set for big openings in the US this month, Wan’s latest hustle could be on its way to becoming the “box-office titan” that The New York Times predicts it will be.
“When you make a movie of this size, there’s always going to be lots of pressure. You’re coming into a world that someone has established and is beloved. But the cool thing about Aquaman is that even though it’s under the umbrella of the DC cinematic universe, I get to create my own world within that word."
"And when I get to create my own world," said Wan, grinning, "my characters get to play within my own rules."
Aquaman opens in Singapore today (Dec 13).