East Asian influences in DC’s newest hit, Aquaman

How Malaysian-Australian director James Wan created a multi-cultural box office hit

Aquaman is Warner Bros’ latest offering set in the DC Universe and it has proven to be a worldwide phenomenon. In its current box office run, the film easily managed to gross over 1 billion dollars and has already beat out 2012's The Dark Knight Rises to become the highest grossing movie based on a DC character ever. However, upon closer inspection, we discover that Aquaman is in fact below movies such as Wonder Woman and even box office bombs Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad in terms of gross in the United States. What gives?

Aquaman’s success at the box office is primarily fueled by an outstanding performance in the global market. Due in large part to a move by Warner Bros. to place Malaysian-Australian James Wan as director, Aquaman is instilled with an East-meets-West directorial touch that drove it to nearly triple 2017’s bonafide hit, Wonder Woman, in China gross alone.

As an Asian-American myself, growing up reading Chinese classics and watching many Chinese TV soaps, I noticed many subtle East Asian influences that make Aquaman just that little bit more appealing to the one billion people that live on the other side of the world. This article seeks to highlight the more tasteful additions of Eastern aesthetic, as there are certainly some that can be only described as campy. With notable performances from the cast, (hi Nicole Kidman and Jason Momoa!) and explosions for days carrying the full weight of this theater experience, Aquaman stands tall as world-class entertainment and should not be missed.

Wuxia, which literally means “martial heroes”, is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China.

The first noticeable influence of East Asian culture within Aquaman are in its fight scenes. Although martial arts in Western cinema is nothing new, and in fact has been prevalent since the time of Bruce Lee, most of their influence has been contained to pure choreography. Hollywood fight scenes are spectacles of agility and strength. However, fight scenes in Asia are much different.

In China, youths grow up with a healthy diet of “wuxia”, a form of exaggerated martial arts fiction where heroes quest for ancient swords and use special moves all with names such as “leap water two steps”. In these stories, fights are fantastical, and highly dramatized. There is very rarely raw violence, and instead the fight is much more about a match of wills between the two belligerents. There is frequently conversation, with each side trying to convince the other of some universal truth. Similarly, in Japan there is “shonen” anime, where characters such as Goku from Dragonball Z can fly and have signature moves such as the “kamehameha”.

Aquaman was jam-packed from start to finish with great action sequences, and the majority of them were filmed in the aforementioned classic Hollywood action movie style. Big gut-wrenching punches, close-ups, objects being thrown around and lots of things broken. The two Black Manta fight scenes are great examples of this “Fast and Furious” style.

However, the fight scenes for the Atlantean throne are very reminiscent of the aforementioned Eastern style. In the first clash, which takes place in an undersea arena, both Arthur and his half-brother Orm fight by swimming into each other at high speeds anime style. As the fight develops, and the combatants showcase their skills with the trident, instead of closing in, the camera instead pans out to give the audience a wider view of the grandeur of the melee, leaving the only evidence of a fight going on as the sounds of metal crashing upon metal. This is a fight more about honor than physicality.

The climactic second fight above water too shares some influences from classic wuxia. The bout begins on even terms and words are exchanged. However, in a moment of need, Arthur, our hero, is finally able to remember the “spinning trident floating water” special move that his old mentor taught him as a child, and uses it to finally overpower his foe. Frequently in these Eastern style of fights it is clear that one fighter ascends to some godly level and the rest of the fight becomes a no contest. Now as Aquaman, he decisively severs both his rival’s weapon and his pride with an epic no-look finishing move, and thus ends the duel in cinematic fashion. (see above screenshot)

Wuxia and anime are huge aspects of Far East culture and James Wan does a great job of incorporating their influence into a primarily Western-focused film. This is understandable of course, because as a auteur and an artist, Wan is constantly looking for new and fresh images to present audiences and in the fight scenes for Aquaman, he does just that.

Shan shui (Chinese: 山; literally: “mountain-water”;) refers to a style of traditional Chinese painting that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints. Mountains, rivers and often waterfalls are prominent in this art form.

Within traditional Eastern artwork, the form that stands out most prominently is called “Shan shui”. It is a style of painting that emphasizes fantastical landscapes and romanticizes the vastness of nature. Within the “shan shui” style, colors are deemphasized, and humans and animals are always painted minisculely, if included at all.

Beginning sometime in the 5th century AD, according to Wikipedia, this traditional style of imagery is subtly present throughout Chinese and Asian cinema, most notably reaching the West in the form of 2002’s Hero starring Jet Li. In Aquaman, a fantasy film, James Wan uses his creative license to create beautiful imaginary-scapes reminiscent of this “shan shui” style in the Council of the Seven Kings, or the Hidden Sea Within The Earth’s Core, pictured above.

“Shan shui” is often accompanied with short-form poetry, which is a window into the artist’s inner turmoil and personal thoughts, and commonly has nothing to do with physically describing the scene. In this typical example of “shan shui hua” to the left, a poem is written across the top and the main scene is painted below. As expected, there are people depicted, but their size is small compared to the adjacent mountain and lake, accentuating the expanse of nature. Another interesting part of this prototypical example is the prominent use of white space. In Chinese, this practice is referred to as “liu bai”, or “preserving white”. Artists painting in the Eastern tradition leave this white space as an opportunity for the viewer’s imagination to wander.

I am personally heavily influenced by this form as an artist, and incorporate it into many of the images I produce. My Instagram and production company High Fantasy Pictures both showcase this influence heavily, as shown.

Lake Merritt at Sunset
Landesberg — Crane Wedding
My beautiful girlfriend standing on the cliffs of Mendocino

auspicious : adj | aus·​pi·​cious
1: showing or suggesting that future success is likely
2: attended by good fortune

Artistically, we have seen that Aquaman draws influences from Eastern aesthetics, but we can also see the effect of Eastern culture literally, on-screen. Opportunities for Asians in Hollywood have rapidly been on the rise as of late, following the success of films such as Crazy Rich Asians and the television show Fresh Off The Boat. In Aquaman, the diverse cast features two Asian actors in roles that easily could have gone to traditional white actors, showcasing director James Wan’s influence over the final product.

Ludi Lin, of Power Rangers fame, is featured as Captain Murk, leader of the Atlantean vanguard and right-hand man of King Orm. His character has a small role in the film and he looks rather alien visually, such that a person of any race or color could have easily played him. (see above screenshot) However, the part went to Ludi, who now adds one more high-profile casting to his acting resume.

Additionally, Randall Park from the aforementioned Fresh Off The Boat series continues his rise as a leading supporting actor in Hollywood, starring here in Aquaman as Dr. Stephen Shin, a “surface-dweller” who believes in Atlantis. Personally, this casting choice is a miss. Contrasting from his delightful role as the humorously rule-abiding Detective Jimmy Woo in Ant-Man and the Wasp, Park being cast as a misunderstood genius goes well against his already established straight-edge vibe.

The increase of Asian roles in Hollywood is obviously a good thing, but artistically, I fear a final product whose social commentary begins to outweigh the message of the film itself. Casting Randall Park in a role where another actor may have achieved a better fit is the perfect example of this. However, that day is seemingly still far off, so I remain optimistic and look forward to seeing more opportunities for actors and actresses of East Asian descent to strut their stuff on the Hollywood big screen.

Red Thread of Fate: According to this East Asian myth, the gods tie an invisible red cord around those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way.

Love and marriage in the traditionally highly conservative Eastern cultures is still viewed by many as taboo. Children are not encouraged to spend time with members of the opposite sex, and there are few societal opportunities for interaction. There is no such thing as a school dance for example. The end result is a culture where love and sex is viewed as forbidden and shameful, and those who seek it in spite of this pressure must overcome all odds.

A good example of this distinction between perspectives on love can be found in the recent film Crazy Rich Asians. The climatic wedding scene takes place in a dimly lit church, serenaded by a muted guitar and the overall mood is that of a quiet sadness. This is quite the foil to most Western weddings, where the ideal is to be surrounded in streaming sunlight, happy friends, and accompanied by a proud march played on an organ. The bride in Crazy Rich Asians walks down an aisle flooded with water, so that as she walks, she drenches the hems of her perfect wedding dress. In Eastern culture, love is won, as wearily as life itself.

In Aquaman, we root for two fiercely independent main characters, who both eventually fail on their path as individuals. In turn, they learn to need each other and consequently cannot live without one another. Arthur Curry, the reluctant hero, never having seen Atlantis or knowing his birthright, is content with the life he built on land. Princess Mera, a princess who fears a future world at war, is powerless to stop the inevitable. Though the two of them were never meant to meet, one being from the surface, and the other being an underwater princess, the impossible becomes reality as the pair fight for the peace between two worlds and in turn grow to love.

Tell the world that we finally got it all right

In my youth, I visited China frequently. At the time, the country was still in the infant stages of its development but it was clearly on the upward trajectory that we see today. One time at dinner, a family friend asked me that if the United States and China ever got into a conflict against one another, which side would I choose. That question stuck with me. As a child I could not make the choice between the land where my entire family was from and the land where I was born. So many years later, when I was finally grown, I made a choice. I chose to build a world where I didn’t have to make that choice. And James Wan’s Aquaman and the wonderful team who made the film possible helped bring that distant world just a bit closer.