Between the illegal street racing scene and consumer-friendly car shows, anyone who’s spent time in either one knows a closely guarded trade secret: hidden deep beneath layers of sweet chrome, slick paint jobs and bad attitude, gearheads who truly love cars are garage-bound nerds at heart, tinkering with computer systems nestled between an engine and four wheels.
The juxtaposition of badass and mama’s boy is one of the thematic underpinnings of the original Fast and Furious (2001), starring a 1970 Dodge Charger and 1995 Toyota Supra. Human actors accompanying the roaring machines have become household names as well, led by Vin Diesel (real name Mark Sinclair) and the unfortunately deceased Paul Walker.
Fast and Furious takes much of its visual appeal from science fiction and cross-pollinates those cues into the racing genre. Racers prepare by running diagnostics on schematic-laden computer screens and dashboards full of esoteric switches and buttons. A chosen few characters expose tanks of an explosive compound that can grant high-performance cars the ability to “blast off” not unlike a rocket destined for outer space. Tailpipes breathe fire with every pump of the gas pedal at the starting line.
The race begins. We tour the engine from a fuel’s eye view, cam shafts, pistons and fan belts whining like jets initiating liftoff. As we enter stage two of the race, Brian (Paul Walker) jabs a button on his steering wheel to inject nitrous oxide into the engine. Attaining the first phase of hyperspeed, backgrounds warp and bleed together into a neon blur. A warning alarm appears in one computer’s display with a dire message that would be right at home in Star Wars’ often-malfunctioning Millenium Falcon: “Warning: Danger to Manifold”.
Naturally, the warning is ignored in favor of adrenaline. Brian presses the second nitrous oxide release button and we enter phase two of hyperspeed, drivers in their cockpits grappling at the controls like pilots fighting supersonic g-forces while their technologically superpowered vehicles take off toward the finish line.
Air streaming past aerodynamic contours gives a breathless sense of high-speed flight. Sparks fly as the racers use dogfight manuevers worthy of Luke Skywalker, bringing the audience on an exhilarating ride that appears to bend space and time.
Who wins the race? The Supra or the Charger? O’Connor or Torretto? See, hear and feel it for yourself:
Sung Kang and the Mythology of Han
Fast and Furious continues its blend of street racing and sci-fi most notably in the character named Han, played by actor Sung Kang. You probably don’t have to guess the character’s last name; in case you do, it will be mentioned in full as you keep reading.
Sung Kang’s Han character broke through Asian “nerd”/”martial artist” stereotypes in several ways, perhaps best described by Kang himself:
Prior to “Tokyo Drift,” the iconic perception of Asians in Hollywood films has been either the Kung Fu guy, the Yakuza guy or some technical genius. It used to be such a joke, to be laughed at rather than with. I’ve gotten to travel and meet people all over the world who embrace Han. He’s the kind of guy that I would like to emulate in terms of his values. He’s just a guy you want to hang out with. The Asian thing totally disappears. When I started acting, I hoped I could make some kind of positive contribution to this world. When I get a letter from some kid in Nebraska saying that, prior to Han, nobody wanted to be his friend because Asians weren’t cool if they weren’t into martial arts — Now he’s accepted and recognized as a human being. That’s pretty awesome, right? That’s pretty awesome.
Acting teacher — and successful theater actor in his own right — Reginald Veneziano offers practical advice for aspiring young “ethnic” actors: your first roles may likely be stereotypical [his was the “Italian” stereotype]. Become known for playing one type of role very well and eventually, you will be given opportunities to play other characters based on the strength of past performances.
It’s solid advice that has worked quite well for him and many of his students.
What if we take the examples of both Vin Diesel (writer/director/actor), and actor Sung Kang in his longtime collaboration with director Justin Lin? If we combine them with the self-publishing power of the Internet, there may be alternative approaches that can benefit anyone with a story and a dream, regardless of ethnicity.
Multi-Facial, Steven Spielberg and Pitch Black
Vin Diesel [real name: Mark Sinclair] started out in 1990 as an “in-between” actor with movie-star aspirations, yet trapped in Off-Off-Off Broadway productions. Although biracial, he wasn’t black enough to fit “the Wesley type”, and not white enough to pass for a stereotypical Italian.
According to Hollywood lore, Sinclair took matters into his own hands by writing, directing, starring in and self-financing two of his own independent films, Multi-Facial (1995) and Strays (1997). He was contacted by Steven Spielberg, who was impressed by Multi-Facial, and this led to Sinclair being cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Even in the science fiction cult phenomenon Pitch Black (2000), Sinclair’s character Richard B. Riddick embodied the ultimate expression of racial “otherness”, literally being a member of an alien species whose remaining diaspora were scattered across the cosmos after genocide against their kind.
The Asian Hunk Next Door
Sung Kang faced a dilemma endured by almost every aspiring Asian-American actor: playing the “Asian guy” who is either an asexual nerd or Bruce Lee clone.
Kang had the good fortune to connect with director Justin Lin for the independent film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002).
Better Luck Tomorrow was a provocative portrayal of Asian-American kids that reversed the traditional roleplay with results that shocked viewers, spurring controversy and meaningful conversations about what it means to construct your own identity in modern American society.
Below, you’ll see the 38-minute documentary on the creation of Better Luck Tomorrow featuring interviews with a very young Justin Lin and Sung Kang (note: the documentary actually begins near the 1min 16sec mark). It’s a story worth watching at least once for the passion and insight of its subjects, as well as timeless advice about making, distributing and marketing a hit indie film (as well as pitfalls and mistakes to avoid along the way):
During his rise to mainstream success, Justin Lin integrated Sung Kang’s “Han” character into the Fast and Furious universe. A freshly grown-up style came with a fitting new last name: the tough kid from BLT would now be known as smooth operator Han Seoul-Oh.
The silly-yet-perfect homophonic similarities — between “Han Seoul-Oh” (a somewhat Korean-ish name) and “Han Solo” of Star Wars fame — are strongly reflected in Sung Kang’s approach his character. Kang’s choices as an actor while portraying Han, in turn, have given younger generations a new template for what it can mean to be Asian-American.
Opening A New Universe of Independent Media
Mark Sinclair [a.k.a. Vin Diesel] and Sung Kang show that waiting for the “right” role or the mythical (and astronomically unlikely) “big break” isn’t the only way to find success in the acting world anymore.
Costs required for producing high-quality independent film continue to fall. The nearly superheroic feats of perseverance by Mark Sinclair and Justin Lin are far less daunting to pursue now that new paths are emerging. Our Internet-enabled independence is creating viable ways to begin or even sustain a career. Technological hurdles are dissolving, revealing the value of a creatively conceived and well-told story. At the core of such stories are characters who compel us to watch and care for them over the course of their journey.
Film itself is no longer the only medium for directors, writers and actors to get their start. The main barrier to entry now is not the creation of a finished work. The new challenge is how to get noticed by the intended audience, and in the age of a “free” Internet, how to find an audience who will pay for your independent work. Draining your life’s savings and running up five credit cards for the sake of making a movie may no longer be necessary, exemplified by crowdsourced films released in 2015 like Kung Fury and Sundays.
What sci-fi [or other] story have you always wanted to create on film, radio theatre or even a podcast? There’s never better been a better time to make it happen, and the odds will only continue to improve for independent artists if we continue to guide these new possibilities toward a even better future.
1. Fast and Furious, race scene [3min 45sec].
2. Interview with actor Sung Kang.
3. Vin Diesel’s Beginnings: Multi-Facial, Steven Spielberg.
4. Better Luck Tomorrow: Genesis (documentary) [38min 3sec].
5. Kung Fury [31min 2 sec].
6. Sundays [14min, 50sec].
7. What’s The Best Medium For A Storyteller In 2015 And Beyond?
8. Do Podcasts Beat Film, Games And Comics As A Storytelling Medium?