Kevin Tancharoen is a director best known for his work on projects like Mortal Kombat: Legacy. During a recent interview with Heroic Hollywood, Tancharoen broke down his work on the recently released Netflix series The Brothers Sun while giving some interesting insights into his future projects, including a potential Mortal Kombat return and a mystery musical!
The Brothers Sun was released on Netflix on January 4th. The series follows Charles “Chair-Leg” Sun (played by Justin Chien), the son of the head of a Taiwanese triad who sets out for Los Angeles to protect his mother, Eileen (played by Michelle Yeoh), and his younger brother, Bruce (played by Sam Song Li) in an action-packed adventure about food, fights, and family.
A lot of people know you from directing projects like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Arrowverse shows, but what I know you best from is Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Do you think, now that Mortal Kombat is getting a resurgence in the movies these days, that you’d ever want to return to that universe? Either to direct a spin-off or season 3, or is that chapter of your career over?
No, I think I’m always open to going back if it’s right, obviously. I have such a deep love for that property and it holds a very special place in my heart just because I grew up on it. Like, there are certain properties that mean everything to me. That’s one of them. It’s like Mortal Kombat, [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers. It’s a good time to be alive right now, right? It’s all coming back. Like, it’s good to be an adult male nerd [Laughs] when it comes to that kind of stuff. But it’s fun.
So yeah, I would always want to go back to that. If done properly, if all the parties want to do it, then I would 100% go back. I had a lot of fun watching the movie. My friend Lewis Tan is the lead in it, so it was really cool to see him. I love the stuff that Ed Boon is doing over at NetherRealm in Chicago, like the new game is awesome, so I know that they’re constantly reinventing themselves, so you never know! This franchise might be around forever, so can’t say never!
Another person you worked with on Mortal Kombat: Rebirth is Oren Uziel. Do you guys still have a connection there or have you gone your separate paths?
Oh yeah! I love that guy, he’s great! Him and I, we- I reconnected with him because I congratulated him on Spider-Man: Noir. Which is like, awesome! But I keep in contact with him every now and then because he and I had such a blast working on [Mortal Kombat] Rebirth together, and it was one of those things where I just picked up the phone one day and I was like ‘Dude, I have this random idea. How do you feel about it?’ and he wrote it in like two days!
And I went and shot it and then after that we both were working on the movie with New Line [Cinema] for a minute and then, obviously, you know, development takes a while so we all had to go our separate ways. But he’s a great guy, and I’m really looking forward to whatever he comes up with for Spider-Man because that is a great character and a great setting.
I brought him up because of that Spider-Man: Noir series! Would you be interested in joining the fray and helping direct an episode?
Oh a hundred percent! Because tonally that’s- it’s just something we haven’t seen before. And what a great era to bring Spider-Man into. It just opens the door for you to be able to tell something completely new. Because we know the Peter Parker of the modern era SO well, it would be so great to kind of see how difficult it was to be Spider-Man back then when Tony Stark didn’t exist. So it’s kind of like, there’s no computers, I can’t just talk to my suit. So that would be a lot of fun.
You’re not just a director for The Brothers Sun, you’re also an executive producer. What drew you to this project so much that you wanted that deep level of involvement?
Well, I felt very connected to the story. Like, just on the genre part of it, I’m a huge fan of martial arts films. I grew up watching martial arts films. I think it’s pretty obvious I grew up watching martial arts films. And I also just love [Quentin] Tarantino, as well, and the tone, and when I read this I was like ‘Oh my god there’s such a nice blend of things here’. Not only is it Tarantino but it’s also Stephen Chow, and it’s also Barry! So it was a cool little mix of things that I already loved.
And then a part of me was like ‘Oh, I can see a really cool soundtrack’ in the way that Drive was able to have like a really cool soundtrack. So I was drawn by all the stylistic parts of it, but the most important part of it was the core family story and the Asian-American story that I felt connected to because, simply, that was me growing up.
I think in the first meeting when I met with Byron [Wu] and Brad [Falchuk], yes, we definitely talked about all the fun stuff, but the bulk of our conversation was mainly just about talking about our experiences growing up and how Byron and I had a lot of similarities. So that’s what ultimately drew me into it, and all the other things that surround the genre of it are what makes it super fun. So I would say that’s really what drew me to the whole thing, in general.
The Brothers Sun is very rooted in a personal culture and people. Can you speak about how this sort of authentic representation is important, even in shows with a heavy action focus?
Yeah, I thought it was always really important because, obviously, there’s a big movement in representation and I wanted to make sure that, with the volume of things that are coming out that are all so great, and everyone is doing such a good job at making sure people are represented properly, I wanted to make sure that we retained a lot of fun within our story about identity, right? Because it couldn’t just be a drama, or else it just- I don’t think it would have been the wild ride that we wanted.
So when it comes to the authenticity of this we wanted to really make sure that, not only in front of camera, but behind the camera there were a lot of authentic voices and it’s because we’ve got to take all of our experiences and learn to make fun of them. And learn to laugh about them but also come together and really feel unified by them. And I think that all the nuances and the authenticities in the winks and the nods to the people that may have grown up similarly, that’s going to be a kick for them to get those little cultural flourishes, but if you, say, you didn’t grow up within the culture, there’s still so much fun and action and heart in there for you to just be immersed in general.
But if you could laugh at, say, taking your shoes off when you come in the house then great! There’s one little nod I’m sure a lot of Asian-Americans are gonna be like ‘Yeah, yep! Yeah, exactly!’ Or, one of my favorite things is when Mama Sun sees her son for the first time in ages and one of the first things she says to him is ‘Your beard looks terrible.’ Like, that is a common, that’s a common- I’ve been told that before too! So every now and then there’ll be a bit of a wink like ‘Oh, yeah, you get it if you get it.’
But ultimately it’s just a story about fitting in and finding your place and being part of a family that you don’t understand. And so everything I think goes through a moment of discovery like that so in this one we just happened to be in a very hyper-stylized, hyper-realistic, larger-than-life stakes version of it.
You mentioned keeping that authenticity behind the camera. When a lot of people think of movies or shows, they really only praise the actors, directors, and writers. Is there an unsung person or department that you feel really brought this series to life?
Yeah, you know, I gotta say like even on the production design and art direction side, we had a bunch of authentic voices within every department. And also the wardrobe, right? So wardrobe is always something that’s super important and I think when it comes specifically to the fashion in this show we never wanted it to feel like costume. Because it can, very quickly.
I did a lot of research into Asian street fashion and some Asian-American fashion in San Gabriel Valley, and I wanted to make sure that it felt real because there’s definitely a cultural imprint in fashion statements to be made, but if it ever felt like it was trying too hard, then you kind of just get checked out, right? So I think they really brought it because there was always a fine line there.
And on the production design side, it’s very easy to get stereotypical, right? So there’s always that very weird line that you have to teeter and totter over to make sure what’s real and what’s a caricature. So finding that right balance was super important for specifically both of those when it comes to wardrobe and production design, art direction, and also music! You know, music also has a lot of stereotypical tones to it so we wanted to make sure that none of it felt too obvious and it all felt authentic to the story, but never felt like you were just crossing that line.
The Brothers Sun had a lot of really creative fight scenes. In cases like this where there’s so much story being told through the fight scenes, what is the balance of power between the fight choreographer and the director?
Well the fight coordinator that I was able to convince to work on this with me was a guy named Justin Yu, who I’ve worked with before and he is great. We just already had a shorthand and I understood the kind of action he likes to design. And it always comes from a place of character first, which was always the most important thing because I think now more than ever we’re very desensitized to action because there’s such a wealth of really amazing things out there.
And it’s hard to stand out because we’ve kind of, at this point, almost have seen everything. It’s just now how do we contextualize it and make it interesting? And that always comes down to motive and character in my opinion. I went back and watched some of the most impactful action sequences that I knew had an impact on me and when you whittle it down to the basics, when you can just come up with one simple logline for the action sequence, it’s always so helpful because it’s usually very very very simple.
So we wanted to make sure that was in there and we still had to have a lot of fun with it, so there’s always going to be a little bit of camp in some of the winks to the fights. But a character is always either learning something new within the fight or they’re overcoming something new in the fight and it’s never just a matter of just surviving, so that is something we really took to heart and wanted to make sure that there was space for character within all of the fight sequences so that it wasn’t just non-stop punches and kicks.
I will say that it was definitely an experiment. We had to go back and forth, we had to figure out the pacing and the timing, is that right? In post, we had to find the balance and the right music. It was a very delicate balance, but Justin Yu was a very great partner in that to have, so yeah, he killed it.
You mentioned Tarantino a bit earlier. Do you have any other directors you cite as inspiring your style?
Edgar Wright has always been- I’ve been a huge fan of the way he designs…everything, really. The synergy with music is always something I find really incredible. The kinetic transition shots that he does and his attention to sound design, also, is I think something very important.
So he was a big inspiration, and Stephen Chow, a very big inspiration. I mean, Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer are some of my favorite movies, Kung Fu Hustle is probably a little bit more. So these were the three I really wanted to have in my head at all times, because it was a lot of fun.
We keep going back to this idea of music and sound in fights, do you think your experiences on projects like Fame and directing live concerts have influenced the way you shoot fights?
Absolutely! So, before I was a director I was a choreographer in the pop world. Because of that, I think blocking and camera choreography and its relationship to music has always been something that is kind of natural in my process, but I have such a connection to music and space because I started off working with people and just moving them around that, essentially, when you add a camera into it, that just makes it that much more magical and you can find a synchronization between a steady cam operator or a camera operator with music and the fighting — it’s just really fun to put it all together.
So I do think that because of my background, I kind of naturally have those elements become part of the whole project, but it certainly has helped. It certainly helped a lot. Because also, arguably, every fight sequence is a musical number, right? They do have crescendos and then moments of pause and silence and then a big ramp-up, so it is a musical in its own weird way. So it’s all one and the same, you can find the harmony between all of the elements.
This is Justin Chien’s first action-heavy project. Which is hard to tell, because he did amazing! When you were on set with him, how did you see him adapt to this role over time?
He embraced it wholeheartedly, and I really mean that. Like as far as I was joking a lot that he really Keanu Reeve’d the project, but I feel like we all know what that means now. It means he just dedicated himself 100% to the whole role. Physically, mentally — he did martial arts every day. And it’s not easy to pick all that stuff up. So he really just went full Keanu on the training part of it and nailed it. And we were lucky because that’s what it required.
It required somebody who was gonna be like ‘You know what? I have a chance to have free ninja training, I might as well take it [Laughs]. And he went above and beyond. We rarely had to use any stunt doubles for the choreography because his timing ended up becoming so great. And that was something we talked about a lot. The timing of fight sequences is like… there’s a difference between some more modern Western fights and then when you close your eyes and listen to a Bruce Lee fight. There’s a different rhythm to all of it. There’s something really cool and sly about Bruce Lee’s fighting because of the way he does things really fast but then pauses, and then has a moment of- a “cool moment.” So we studied a lot of that kind of stuff and Justin was just a really good student and then he just nailed it in every single fight scene. So it was really fun to watch that emerge.
With his character, baking is obviously a very big motif throughout the series. I was curious if you could say what the significance of churros was throughout the season.
You know what, that would probably be a specific question for Byron or Brad because they just landed on churros. They were like ‘You know what, that’s gonna be something that he’s just going to be obsessed with.’ Maybe it’s got something to do with their love for churros, I’m not sure. But I do know that when it comes to baking, we had discussed how cooking is therapeutic.
There are therapy elements to just doing instructions and listening to directions and following them to a T. And especially baking, you have to get it down to the exact measurement in order for it to be perfect. So we just figured for someone whose life is so chaotic, what’s something that he could control on his own? And what’s the opposite of murdering people? It’s baking a lovely cake! [Laughs] So it was the juxtaposition between the two I thought was very fun and understandable.
Another one of the stars of the show is Michelle Yeoh. Always one of the biggest icons in Hollywood, but now she’s gotten even bigger since her Oscar win. What was it like working with her on set?
It felt surreal, to be honest. Because I had, growing up, admiring her from afar, I’ve seen all her movies, you know? I remember getting Silver Hawk in a random video store and I’ve always known her as this incredibly talented, super regal, elegant person from afar.
Then when I met her, naturally, I was intimidated at first because this was a legend that I’ve known on screen for so long – I wondered how it’s going to be. And she was the coolest person because she immediately made you feel like family and you automatically knew why she was so successful.
She just makes everyone feel like you’re part of her family and it’s a delight to be around her. And because of that, the set was a lovely place to be and the lovely actors who were newer felt confident because they had Michelle Yeoh’s stamp of approval. And that was a big deal. So she was amazing to work with because, obviously, nobody has to question how professional she is.
She was so professional. But she’s also just a part of the team. She wanted to just do whatever it required to make the show good. So that was really great because that definitely infected the rest of the crew and the cast. Like, because she was so in it and amazing everyone else wanted to be their best. So I just wanted to say that we got very lucky and we were very fortunate to get her.
Speaking of those new actors like Sam Song Li, is there a moment on set where he really surprised you with what he was able to pull out?
Yeah, you know, he’s one of those natural kind of comedic improv actors. He surprised almost every time because he would do something, say something, his timing would be different on a different take and it was hard not to smile and laugh with almost every scene he was in because it was so natural. So he surprised us every day with how he was able to play that role, be charming, but never silly.
That’s a hard balance to play too when you’re playing a comedic role, especially if you’re the comedic role. He never got to that point and he was able to ride that line very delicately. He’s just charming. I think a lot of people are gonna really like this character because, arguably, he’s the “every man” way into this story and there’s a lot of wish fulfillment there.
We hear a lot about writers and actors really immersing themselves in a world. As a director, did you do anything to really prepare for this series?
Oh, well, I think my whole life kind of prepared me as much as possible for this. But I really did spend a lot of time rewatching a lot of the inspirational classics that I considered kind of a “must” for this show. But also, in the research process as a team, between the production designer and the writers, the DP, costume, we were all students in that world as much as we could.
We scouted, we interviewed, we researched. We just made sure that we were never too nervous to ask questions. And we were able to get into certain locations that had never been filmed ever before. And we wanted to make sure that it was shown authentically, because we shot a lot in the San Gabriel Valley that doesn’t often get shown in a mainstream way.
So I think just by nature of shooting the show you were researching it, and it was always making sure that every department head and crew member knew that it had to be as authentic as possible and not just a stereotype. And I think everyone took that to heart and really made that a mandate. So we were constantly always learning in an odd way because everyone had a different experience within their lives that they wanted to bring to the table, in their own nuanced way.
(Readers beware! This interview contains spoilers for the finale of The Brothers Sun beyond this point! Continue at your own risk!)
Do you have a favorite day on set where you either showed something really interesting or something really spoke to you?
I had a favorite day because it just felt like real movie-making. It felt like a real controlled chaos. Loud noises, but when you pulled back and realized what you were doing it was so fun. It was the dim-sum shootout in episode 7, where we had no room and like a hundred people crammed, you know what I mean? That room was not big and we were sometimes simultaneously shooting in the kitchen and the banquet hall and they were both loud action sequences.
So that kind of chaos was crazy on set that day but when you just sat back and watched everyone moving, it was so cool because everyone cared so much about getting it done correctly and everyone was just working together to get it done and make our day. It was chaotic, but it was super fun. So that was a week, that kind of stood out to me, because it was a lot of work! We took over that strip mall and just, kind of guerrilla-style, shot that whole sequence as fast as we could. And it worked out.
Do you have any direction you hope the story takes if it gets a season 2, or do you think this is a one-and-done type series?
Oh no, I think there’s a lot of room to explore. Obviously, the door has been kicked wide open for Bruce and I would be very curious about what means to his relationship with his brother, but also his relationship with his mother and his best friend TK. I would love to, “More money, more problems,” is always the real truth.
So I’d be curious to see the balance, how this really close, tight-knit family handles all of this now. With Big Sun out of the picture, it’s Mama Sun to rule, but it comes at a massive cost. So I would love to see how this family could overcome the next massive hurdle because they’re just gonna get bigger and bigger.
Regarding, not just the next step in the show, but the next step for you as a director. Is there any project you’re really hoping to take on in the next few years or any property you really want to direct something for?
I think, you know, I’m working on a lot of projects on my own at the moment. There is this family action-adventure movie that I’m desperate to make because it’s everything that I grew up loving, so I’d be very excited to get that off the ground.
But also I’m very interested in doing horror this year because I grew up as such a huge fan of horror. Originally, I wanted to be a creature designer. I wanted to be Rob Bottin and I wanted to be Stan Winston and Rick Baker and all of those guys. I have a deep love for that genre, so I would love to attack a project that’s horror-driven.
Because you’ve tackled a lot of supernatural and superpowered beings, do you find that there’s a difference in directing fight scenes for people who are just humans?
Yes, for sure! Because that is part of the story, right? In superhero stuff, you kind of buy that everyone can fight very well, or don’t get that hurt. I think that when you’re telling a story about just real people, yes, we have Charles who is an expert fighter, but we have to make sure Bruce never looked like he knew what he was doing, and there’s some difficulty to that.
To make things look off the cuff or feel authentic in the moment and it doesn’t feel choreographed or fluid, and so it was definitely a challenge to do the opposite of making someone look great, right? Which is making someone look clumsier. So we had a nice balance of the two, because obviously we have some very skilled fighters in the show and then we have Bruce, who doesn’t know how to fight! [Laughs]. It was fun to see him and TK kind of not really understanding what’s going on.
Just seeing TK’s energy, were there any fun moments with his actor on set?
Oh, yeah, he’s also one of those natural comedians. I believe our casting director found him off of TikTok or Instagram doing skits on his own, and he just embodied that character so well because, in a weird way, he kind of just is that larger-than-life funny guy. The second you sit down with him you realize that’s who he is. But he’s also a very deep person.
I find that quite often with comedians. Yes, they’re brilliant when it comes to comedy but there’s also a really extreme depth behind all of it. And Joon Lee is one of those guys. So it was never just about jokes with him, it’s always about contextualizing it and he was great. It was like his first big project and he embraced it and if he was nervous I never saw it.
Is there anything else you want to get out, either about The Brothers Sun or your own work that you haven’t been able to get out there yet?
Yes. So, I have always been asked if I ever wanted to do a musical. And I’ve been very hesitant just because I never felt like I had a story to say and I didn’t really have a musical I wanted to adapt. But I have finally come up with an idea that I am very, very obsessed with. And I think it just took the right timing, the right concept, and the right life experience to finally figure out what that is, so I have a feeling that’s going to be one of the projects that’s going to take a longer time to realize, but I am excited about it.