justice for han

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: it’s been one year since the release of The Fate of the Furious and the lack of #JusticeForHan still stings.)

The Fast & Furious franchise is headed for its ninth entry with Hobbs & Shaw, the Dwayne Johnson/Jason Statham-led spinoff from director David Leitch. It marks a departure from the series’ new status quo after a decade (and then some) of Vin Diesel-driven family drama. Though more pertinently, it presents the franchise with another opportunity for something with which it’s all too familiar: course correction. Specifically, it’s an opportunity to deliver #JusticeForHan.

The departure of Sung Kang’s Han Lue (a.k.a. Han Seoul-Oh) was inevitable come Furious 7. After the character’s demise in entry #3, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift back in in 2006, the series went into prequel mode for three full films all the way through Fast & Furious 6, just so Han could rejoin the fold. In the seventh film in 2015, time finally catches up with the Fast Family as Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw is retroactively revealed to have caused the crash that killed Han in Japan. It’s a major plot point that makes Shaw the target of Casa de Toretto.

But with the eighth entry, The Fate of the Furious, in April 2017, Deckard himself became part of the Family, with Han being entirely forgotten. Something was amiss in the fabric of this saga, and it wasn’t sitting well with fans who had embraced the series unironically, this writer included.

The Road to This Point

The Fast & Furious saga is hard to make sense of if you’re an outsider, but our Fast Fandom is a welcoming one. It’s fun to explain the strange chronology and even stranger titles to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, but the gradual evolution of the series from macho street-racing to sincere action saga driven by togetherness is precisely why Han mattered. It’s also why ignoring his death in F8 feels like such betrayal of narrative and theme.

But first, a primer:

  • The Fast and The Furious (2001), often considered Point Break with cars. A homoerotic L.A. romp that introduces series staples Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), Letty (Michelle Rodrigues) and Vince (Matt Schulze).
  • 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), the gold standard for sequel titles. A Miami-set buddy movie, also dripping with homoeroticism, that sends Brian on an adventure with his old pal Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) while also introducing Tej Parker (Ludacris) and Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendez).
  • The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), a major turning point for the series that not only departed from the narrative of both prior films, but introduced screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin to the saga. It’s where we first meet Sung Kang’s Han alongside a group of characters entirely separate from the rest of the franchise, and it’s also where Han dies in what was then meant to be an accident. Vin Diesel makes a cameo at the end and reveals he used to roll with Han back in the day.
  • Fast & Furious (2009), AKA the boring one set on the Mexican border, which sees Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker), Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) return to the franchise full-time along with Sung Kang, making it a prequel to Tokyo Drift. Justin Lin and Chris Morgan return to direct and write, and the film also introduces Tego Calderón & Don Omar as Tego & Rico, and Gal Gadot as Giselle. Letty dies and Dom becomes a psychic detective in at least one (1) scene.
  • Fast Five (2011), Justin Lin and Chris Morgan’s masterstroke, a Rio heist film that ties it all together. Dom, Brian, Mia, Han, Giselle and Tego & Rico from the previous film are joined by Vince from the first one, Roman and Tej from 2 Fast 2 Furious, and by series newcomers Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky) and FBI Agent Luke Hobbs, played by none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. A shot in the arm for the franchise and a film that had most critics jumping on board, as the series finally embraced its inherent ridiculousness. Han and Giselle are an item now. And yes, it’s still homoerotic. In a post-credits scene, Eva Mendez’ Monica Fuentes reveals to Hobbs that Letty (Michelle Rodrigues) is still alive.
  • Fast & Furious 6 (2013), another Lin and Morgan joint, the series’ first globe-trotter, and “the one with the tank.” Less homoerotic than the others. Sorry, can’t have it all. Dom, Brian, Hobbs, Han, Giselle, Roman, Tej, Mia, Elena and an amnesiac Letty all return, along with new villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Vehicular Warfare™ ensues and Dom tries to remind Letty of who she is. Giselle dies, after which Han decides to move to Tokyo… and here’s where it all starts to make sense. Kind of. In a post-credits scene, a flash back to Tokyo Drift in 2006 that’s technically a flash forward since it takes place after this film, Han’s accidental death is revealed to have been caused by Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, brother to Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw, as revenge for what the Fast Fam did to Owen.
  • Furious 7 (2015) *deep breath* The series finally catches up to Tokyo Drift, but Justin Lin vacates the director’s chair and is replaced by James Wan of The Conjuring fame. Deckard (Jason Statham) kills Han and tries to kill the rest of the Family. They fight back and try to avenge Han’s death. Dom, Brian, Hobbs, Letty, Mia, Roman and Tej return. Brian exits the series after the real-life death of Paul Walker, and “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa becomes a global smash hit that makes grown men cry all across the globe.
  • And finally, The Fate of the Furious (2017), where it all goes wrong, but we’ll get to that.

To understand why any of this matters in the first place, or why people have been tweeting about #JusticeForHan with the same mix of irony and sincerity as the series itself (or in many cases, wholly sincerely) requires going back to the series’ origins. No, not The Fast and The Furious, which introduced the characters to the big screen. I mean the film in which the series was truly born, narratively and thematically: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. 

Seoul-Oh: An Origin Story

Tokyo Drift is one of the best Hollywood films about outsider experience. Justin Lin brings to it a unique sensibility as a Taiwanese immigrant to America, telling a tale of assimilation and finding oneself in a foreign culture alongside a band of fellow outsiders. In the film, set almost entirely in Tokyo, Caucasian American expat kid Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) finds a sense of purpose when he joins up with African American army brat Twinkie (Shad Moss/Bow Wow), mixed-race “gaijin” local Neela (Nathalie Kelley) and Korean American Han (Sung Kang), a found family who each search for solace behind the wheel.

Han was introduced at a time when Hollywood saw few leading characters of East Asian ethnicity, let alone ones who were allowed to be cool. He was laid back, his mysterious criminal past made him compelling, and his post-smoking oral fixation (he’s constantly snacking) made him feel like he had a full interior life and a past behind the screen. He was detached without being removed, mentoring Lucas Black’s Sean in his world of drift-racing, and he connected with enough fans – Asian Americans especially – that he was resurrected for three more features and the Fast & Furious short film Los Bandoleros. But Tokyo Drift may not have been Han’s first on-screen appearance.

In 2002, Justin Lin directed the Asian American cult hit Better Luck Tomorrow, focusing on a group of Asian American overachievers whose boredom with academia leads them into a world of crime and excess – not unlike Lin’s Fast protagonists Sean Boswell, who drifts through life until he finds his underground calling. The film also featured Sung Kang as a character named Han (albeit with the full name Han Hu), a similarly detached “cool guy” criminal. Of course, the intent was likely to have Han from Tokyo Drift be something of a thematic successor to Han from Better Luck Tomorrow, but even in literal terms, the pieces fit. It isn’t too much of a stretch to consider them one and the same person; Han Hu was a smoker while Han Lu appears to have quit smoking, and the name change isn’t a stretch either since the name he uses in films #6 & 7 (Han Seoul-Oh, pronounced “Han Solo”) is said by Lin to have been a fake ID.

Either way, whether literally or in spirit, Sung Kang’s laid back, cool-as-a-cucumber Han has been around in the Asian American consciousness in some form since at least 2002, spanning eleven years and five feature films; thirteen years and six films if you count his flashback and funeral in Furious 7. And, given the ongoing conversation about orientalism and whitewashing in American cinema and the casual dismissal of Asian narratives, the mainstream failure to take the conversation about Han seriously feels especially egregious.

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