How Kuching-Born Director James Wan Was Inspired By His Malaysian Roots For 'Aquaman'
When James Wan was first approached to direct a DC movie, the Kuching-born filmmaker was given the choice between two superheroes - The Flash or Aquaman
When it came time to pick for his first foray into the superhero genre, Wan ruled out taking on the speedster, as he felt that it "had been done before".
"It had been on TV twice at that point," he told The New York Times.
But he also harboured some reservations about pursuing the latter, as Aquaman had a reputation for being the superhero "everyone makes fun of" because he has "no other power other than the ability to talk to fish." Strangely enough, Wan's reluctance would later become the driving force behind his final decision.
"The more I thought about it... I always love being the underdog. Coming from the horror genre, you’re always the underdog. So I got used to that mentality," he explained.
Aquaman's "underdog" status is not the only part Wan connected with. Born in Malaysia but raised in Australia for most of his life, he understands what it's like to feel divided between two cultures.
From the get-go, Aquaman a.k.a. Arthur Curry's conflicted sense of self and belonging "stood out" to Wan. After all, he too grew up in two different worlds and "never quite felt like he fit into either world".
"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, and that was something that really stood out for me," he told Channel NewsAsia.
In a case of life imitating art, Arthur's arc in the movie would somewhat mirror Wan's as he grows to accept his birthright as the rightful heir to the kingdom of Atlantis
Wan, who was also involved in developing the story, explained, "What he ultimately discovers and realises is (that) he is the best of both worlds and he ends up embracing his identity. That's something that, as I grew older, something that I've embraced more."
Having such a strong Australian upbringing, I’ve retained my Chinese/Malaysian heritage as well.
Working on Aquaman also gave Wan the opportunity to incorporate a significant aspect of his Chinese heritage, particularly in a pivotal moment of Arthur's quest to retrieve a long-lost legendary trident
Fans have pointed out that the sequence in which Arthur retrieves the Lost Trident of Atlan reminded them of a scene in Journey to the West, where the Monkey King snuck into the Dragon King's underwater palace to pilfer his iconic golden staff.
In an interview with China.org, Wan admitted that he was indeed inspired by the 16th century classic, saying that it's one of his favourite novels growing up.
"I am of Chinese descent, so I have heard many Chinese stories as I grew up. I have always liked Journey to the West and The Monkey King Sun Wukong, and was influenced by these Chinese elements when I was filming," he said.
As one of only a handful of Asian filmmakers to enjoy mainstream success in Hollywood, Wan takes pride in his Malaysian-Chinese heritage as well as the "immigrant-style hustle" that has defined his career
Speaking to Nextshark, Wan offered, "Just like most immigrants, when you get the opportunity to get these other countries, you work as hard as you can. That’s how it’s always been for me."
Citing the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood, the visionary director told Channel NewsAsia that his career has always been about "breaking doors, breaking stereotypes".
Wan, whose career has mostly been defined by his visionary work in the horror genre, said, "I hate stereotypes, 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."
In our research, we also noticed something pretty endearing about the director - he looks really tiny next to the actors he works with!
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