Wednesday, July 8

Kuching-born James Wan is the new ‘King of Hollywood’


THERE is a new ‘King’ in Hollywood and his name is James Wan. He has directed 13 feature films, produced 24, and written 16. In total, since his first success ‘Saw’ was released in 2004 and culminating with this month’s ‘Aquaman’, his films have grossed worldwide over US$3.3 billion (RM13.7 billion).

Since inception, the ‘Saw’ series of films has become the highest grossing horror franchise of all time; only ‘Friday the 13th’ comes anyway near it.

James was born in Kuching on Feb 26, 1977 to secondary school sweethearts Wan Tet Fong and Jane Soo Seh Eng.

Tet Fong studied at St Thomas’ Secondary School, whilst mum Seh Eng was a year junior in St Mary’s Secondary School, just across McDougall Road in downtown Kuching. They met while in school in 1967.

The Wans left for Perth, Australia when James was just seven years old. Dad passed on when he turned 14; Mum continued her nursing career for which she had left school for back in 1968.

Before his success in Hollywood, James made his first feature-length film ‘Stygian’ with fellow Aussie Shannon Young in 2000 – it won Best Guerrilla Film at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival that year. James had attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and film school. It was there that he had met his future collaborator Leigh Whannell, and they wrote the script for ‘Saw’ together.

‘Saw’, their first feature film which was shot on a very small budget, was released in 2004 – it was an enormous success eventually grossing US$103 million worldwide. At the time, it became the most profitable movie ever, making over 80 times the production budget. It quickly became a horror movie franchise, generating six more sequels.

During an interview James made after the release of ‘Saw’ he had said, “I wanted to make the film really claustrophobic – that was part of the aesthetic that I was going for.  One way I was going to do that was, every time we go to a new location, I’m not going to set it up using an establishing shot. You don’t see a house, and then cut to the inside of the house. You cut to inside, to inside, to inside.”

James too is considered to be a founding member of the unofficial ‘Splat Pack’, a term coined by film historian Alan Jones in ‘Total Film’ magazine for the modern wave of directors making brutally violent horror films. His deal with New Line (coincidentally the studio that produced the shot-in-Sarawak feature ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ in 2000, and more famously the trilogy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’), includes an option to develop and produce modestly budgeted SF, horror, and comedy films through his own production company Atomic Monster.

Personally, James said that he’s a really squeamish guy.

“When I watch other horror films that are really over-the-top with their blood and guts, I cannot watch it. The irony of it all is that horror has always been disregarded by critics, but often the best-made movies you’re going to find in terms of craft … you can’t scare people if they see the seams.”

Not many film buffs are aware that James also executive produced 54 episodes of the revived ‘MacGyver’ TV series, which was rebooted in 2016 and is still going strong. Right now, he has seven major feature films in pre-production or production.

Hollywood media has reported that James had signed on to produce New Line’s ‘Mortal Kombat’ reboot. Last March, it was reported that James and producers Roy Lee and Larry Sanitsky were developing a film adaptation of the Stephen King novel ‘The Tommyknockers’. James will produce the film adaptation under his Atomic Monster label, with an eye to direct. Later in May, it was announced that James would be developing a TV series based on the character ‘Swamp Thing’, to debut this year on the DC Universe streaming service.

All in all, a very busy schedule ahead for the kid from Borneo!

James had said also that he was greatly influenced by the works of David Lynch (of ‘Twin Peaks’ fame) as well as Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. (Argento is Asia Argento’s father; Asia being the significant other of the late Anthony Bourdain.)

James has joined the ranks of another internationally acclaimed and massively awarded film director, albeit working in another totally different genre – the art film. He is Tsai Ming-Liang, also born in Kuching on Oct 27, 1957. He left for Taipei, Taiwan when he was 20 years old.  His first feature film was ‘Rebels of the Neon God’, released in 1992.

Tsai’s family in Kuching are famous noodle-makers and among them at present operate three stalls – Ta Wan Kung, Ah Pi Noodles and one other. Two new branches are currently being set up at Gala Corner, of the newly-opened Gala City commercial complex. They have been famous for their traditional kolo mee since the late 1950s.

Tsai’s film honours include a Golden Lion for Best Picture for ‘Vive L’Amour’; the Silver Bear Special Jury Prize for ‘The River’; the FIPRESCI Award for ‘The Hole’ at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and the Alfred Bauer Prize and Silver Bear for ‘The Wayward Cloud’. His most recent win was the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival for ‘Stray Dog’.

In 2003, Tsai was voted by the UK newspaper ‘The Guardian’ as No. 18 of the best 40 film directors in the world.

It’s a real pity that most of Tsai’s works are not available here either on DVD or streaming on Netflix, and have never been screened here or anywhere else in Malaysia due to adult subject matter and content. Many featured his long-time significant other Lee Kang-Sheng as the main actor.

Today, we raise our glasses and drink a toast to both Kuching-born lads, who have made a name for themselves in the international film arena – to James Wan and to Tsai Min-Liang! We salute you both and wish you many more fruitful years (and awards and accolades) ahead!