The movie Fast & Furious 6 hits theaters tomorrow. It is director Justin Lin's fourth film in the franchise, and is far different from his very first film, Shopping for Fangs, which starred a young John Cho and became a cult classic among Asian-American indie film fans.
Or is it so different?
The action-packed, billion-dollar movie franchise follows a crew of daredevil street racers who go from being criminals to being heroes. But the 42-year-old director was convinced that even in a bang-bang, big-budget movie, he could explore something deeper: race.
Lin, who was born in Taiwan, came to the states when he was 8. And throughout his career, his work reflects a mix of indie and action films — the former usually catered to an Asian-American audience. His comedic film Finishing the Game was based off of the production of a Bruce Lee movie. He also helped start the Web comedy community You Offend Me You Offend My Family, which highlights the work of Asian-Americans.
But back in 2001, when Lin was still a film student, he saw the original Fast & Furious. He liked it, he said, but he was bothered by how the movie's Asian characters were portrayed.
"I'm probably overly sensitive as an Asian-American, growing up, watching Hollywood films," Lin said. "It was cool to see Asian-Americans on screen. ... But to see they always have to be next to Buddha statues or pagodas, they were always the antagonists, the bad guys who hung out in Chinatown."
So, fast-forward: Lin left film school, became a director and made a name for himself on the indie film scene. And then The Big Opportunity rolled around: He was asked to direct the third Fast & Furious movie, Tokyo Drift. But hold up. An indie director? Asked to come on board a blockbuster franchise?
"I said nah, probably not," Lin recalled.
That was only his first answer. Truth is, he just wanted some conditions.
"I remember reading the script. It's Tokyo. It's about cars drifting around Buddhist statues and geisha girls and ... just stuff that you see when Hollywood cinema portrays other cultures," said Lin.
He hadn't hung out much in Tokyo, he admitted, but he knew that the city was "much more postmodern," as he put it. So he said he wanted to make a film that was on a more global and worldly scale.
And it wasn't so easy.
"It takes a lot of discourse. It goes all the way down to — sometimes — subtitles. I remember having a couple of characters in the franchise where I felt like it was natural for them to be speaking in their native tongue," Lin said. "And [people] were saying, 'Oh, it's a big summer movie and people don't want to read.' I don't think it was out of malice or anything, but every time you try to do something different, you have to expect obstacles and discourse."
As for what Lin is searching for, it's complicated. He wants Hollywood to avoid stereotyping Asians. But he doesn't want that fight to define him.
"As an Asian immigrant coming in, for the longest time I still had problems getting in the lot because they're just not used to seeing someone like me who's directing these films," Lin said. "I do think ultimately there's a point where we can kind of just shed that label and become filmmakers. ... Sometimes, I think it's important to be a filmmaker first and be able to talk about whatever you want to after that."