Sung Kang and Justin Lin on the road to 'justice for Han,' and what it means to them
Justice is finally here.
This month, the Fast & Furious franchise turns 20, and the beloved character of Han isn't that far behind. The first time that director Justin Lin and actor Sung Kang created the smalltime criminal with a large appetite, it wasn't for the Fast at all. It was actually for 2003's Better Luck Tomorrow, their celebrated low-budget drama about a group of Asian American high school students who develop a taste for the wrong side of the law.
Then, somewhat surprisingly, Han switched lanes and swerved over into the third Fast movie, 2006's Tokyo Drift, which Lin directed. By the time the end credits rolled, Han seemed to be dead. But he reappeared again (and again…and again) in the next three F&F installments from Lin. Together, the friends and collaborators walked away content after 2013's Fast & Furious 6, when it was revealed that Han was killed (or so we thought) by Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw, who would soon go from villain to hero, even getting his own spin-off opposite Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs.
Irate fans began demanding "justice for Han." For his part, Statham recently said with a laugh to EW, "They better bring me back, because I need to put out that fire." We'll have to wait and see on Statham's re-emergence in the main franchise, but it now appears fans will get their justice when Lin and Kang return for the latest sequel (and EW cover subject), F9 (out June 25).
"My 11-year-old son still thinks that we should have held off the Han reveal," jokes Lin of giving away the return in the trailer.
Ahead of F9, Lin and Kang talked with EW about everything Han, from his origins to his first revival to what "justice for Han" really means.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We just did an oral history to mark the 20th anniversary of Fast, but it's also almost 20 years of Han. Is it wild to think about how far you've come with him? The character and Fast franchise feel like they have a similar trajectory, from low-level criminals to defying the odds of still being around.
JUSTIN LIN: For me, it is one of the perks of not being alone on this. We still have moments where we do something crazy on set and I can look at Sung and we can laugh because whatever just happened probably cost more than the first film we made together. So we always had that context with our journey.
SUNG KANG: When we were shooting Tokyo Drift, I went to go visit Justin because he had an office, an actual office with chairs, and we're walking through and all these people are saying good morning to Justin. And I'm like, "Wow, this is like a whole company here." And then we go into his office, and he has a little baby refrigerator with Snapple, all these different types of Snapples. And I open it up and go, "Justin, you got free Snapple! We've come a long way. You got Snapple and four chairs in the room. We made it, dude."
By F9 you probably had a whole kitchen of Snapple! What was it originally that drew you to this character in Better Luck Tomorrow?
LIN: It felt like it was meant to be. It was a credit card movie, so we were casting until the very last second, and Sung came in. Han was the last character to be cast, and it was really interesting because I was looking for this kind of pragmatic character who goes through life where, good or bad, he's able to always bounce back and forth to have that kind of perspective. I remember we had our last casting call and I thought, "Okay," and I was about to cast this other actor, and then Sung came in and within like a minute, I was like, "Wow, what would have happened if there was traffic or something? We would have missed each other." And so it really felt like it was meant to be. Getting to know the Sung, we were able to build the character off of him. But the truth is that Sung is actually the opposite of Han in most respects. And that became part of our fun in designing this character.
KANG: You know, the interesting thing about Han is, like Justin said, he's so different from the way I grew up, even in geography. Because Justin being a Southern Cali guy, there was just a different swagger that I noticed that he walked with and his place in the community, or in his geography. I come from a small-town in Georgia, and landing in L.A., I didn't understand how an Asian American dude could walk with swagger. And it made me realize that when you have a community of people and you have your tribe, you're able to find your identity within your group. And Justin was really able to guide and flip what the common notion would be for an Asian American character in film. I never worked with a director that understood the three dimensions of a character, especially being an Asian male character, so well and so deeply. There's a lot of stuff that just became shorthand between Justin and I over the years. And it was my first experience feeling protected by a director, where you knew that the creator and the director of the film knew this character through and through. Because I would say I'm probably less like Han and Justin is more like Han.
KANG: [Laughs] That's a nice balance.
How did we even get Han in the world of Fast? Justin, previously speaking to Sung, he said that when you first got Tokyo Drift you called him and the rest of the main Better Luck Tomorrow cast to give them a heads up that there wouldn't be room for them on this one. So how did we go from there to, not only Sung in Tokyo Drift, but playing Han?
LIN: It's interesting, because Han didn't exist when I first signed up. As I was kind of writing and developing the project, this character was just kind of coming to life. And the more I developed this other character, the more I kept going back to the Han. It was also this connection in that, I remember with Better Luck Tomorrow, from Sundance on, one of the big questions people ask because of the ending of the story is, "What happened to these characters?" And it was a convergence of that, and also creating character that was so close, I thought, "Well, it should just be Sung as Han." It became very natural, and also just coming off this other journey, it became a perfect convergence.
Sung, it had to be quite the rollercoaster for you, going from left out to suddenly in as Han, especially knowing Justin first snuck you into an audition for the lead role of Sean, only with the hope of getting you in front of some casting people for down the road.
KANG: I didn't know what he had in mind for the character. I was just more enthusiastic and excited that we get to go on another journey together. The fact that we came from this little no budget indie film and having that spirit, and then being able to come in through the gates of the studio. Like Justin said earlier, how awesome is it that you're not alone? You have a friend and you get to go on this journey together. Aside from the set, we get to travel, we get to eat food at a restaurant and leave a tip because now we have a per diem. [Laughs] So it's not that bad. I was excited that there were going to be some old friends on set and we were going to be able to live the Hollywood dream together.
Have you guys ever actually talked about and mapped out how we got Han from the end of Better Luck Tomorrow to whenever we first see him in the Fast universe? I guess Vin's short film Los Bandoleros would technically be his entry point.
LIN: With Sung, probably years ago, but I've actually had more of those conversations with Vin. Because I think, to me, Han from Better Luck Tomorrow, definitely when he crossed the border and was traveling the world. The convergence in talking to Vin when I first met him about his relationship with Han, that was the start of building this mythology of the Fast universe. And Vin kind of ran off with it. In Los Bandoleros, he put Han in there, and it was off of our conversation. So through the years when we talk about connections, Dom and Han was the first point of connection for the conversation.
Sung, I was talking Fast 4 recently with Justin, and he was telling the story about how he originally decided he was done with Fast after Tokyo Drift. And then you, him and his wife were driving up to San Francisco and you guys stopped at an Arby's and you were just mauled by some teens who were yelling "Han, Han!" Apparently that interaction led to you suggesting maybe Han didn't have to be dead, and then that sparked his interest in returning. Did that moment resonate just as strongly with you?
KANG: When Justin puts his mind to something, he goes after it. Prior to that experience, I don't think he was waking up thinking about the next Fast movie. But I think what was really important in that moment, to be able to share that moment together, is to be able to transcend race and walk into a fast food restaurant and have kids recognize you in a positive way, that's something that affected us. We talk about making an impact in the community and representing properly, and we talk about all these stereotypes and everything in media, and then you walk into an Arby's and you have kids that look like you, that look like your neighbor, that look like people from all walks of life, and they embrace you. And they're not saying, "Oh, it's the Asian guy." No, it's Han, my friend. I think that's something that was really special. I felt like what a shame to just kind of discard that. And then Justin saw it and he used it as a spark, so from that day on, he was off to the races.
What do you think it is about the character of Han that has connected with people, whether they love Arby's or not? Something like "justice For Han" doesn't happen for 99.9 percent of characters who die in a movie, so there's clearly another level of love and appreciation there.
LIN: Growing up, there's always been these characters that come in and out of my life, and they have no skin in the game and they don't have to do anything, yet they're always there at the right time. And it's never pandering, it's always just existing. For me, I always think back, and there's been a few interactions with people where the code is not so black and white, but yet at the same time, it always felt like they're on the right side in that moment. I feel like that's always been the inspiration of Han, that he's not here to tell you who he's about, but he just kind of exists, and there's a balance about this character. And it's always evolving, and it's never just stagnant, and that's something that I think we try very hard in each moment, not to always say, "Well, this is what Han would do." It's trying to really embrace that moment and put that character in it. It's part of the fun and it's also a little scary because I feel like I'm always trying to chase that feeling. Those characters that I've encountered and interacted with, I look back and I'm just kind of blown away at the gestures that they've made.
KANG: Anytime I meet somebody that's into cars they want to invite me to their home and feed me their food and have some Coronas with me and tell me about their life history and their love affair for their cars. So how amazing is it to be able to walk in those shoes because of a character that you played? It's so rare to have that privilege to just exist and make people happy because you played some character in a Fast & Furious movie. I'm very blessed.
The events of Tokyo Drift and Han's "death" finally caught up at end of Fast & Furious 6, and you both walked away seemingly content with the ride being over. But fast-forward a few years, and what was your reaction when you first heard the calls of "justice for Han"?
LIN: It was a 15th anniversary screening for Better Luck Tomorrow, and Sung was there and a lot of the cast were there too when it was brought up in the Q&A. And I hadn't seen 7 or 8, so I was really baffled by it. I think there's a little bit of a misnomer because now everyone's like "justice for this character" they want to come back. And I'm like, no, "justice For Han" is not that. Something in the narrative didn't make sense and we have to correct it - and that's why there's "justice For Han." Making movies, I'm still a little bit baffled why that even existed, but at the same time, it was so gratifying to see the kind of passion and emotions from the fans, really reacting to something that just didn't make sense to them. That is the kind of interaction that I felt like when I first joined the franchise we weren't having with the fans, and so I think even on that level, it was very profound for me. And then to be able to come back and feel like, "Wow, let's really try to do 'justice for Han' and go for it," that just felt like it was all meant to be.
KANG: There's something deeper behind "justice for Han "than just bringing a character back. That's a gimmick. What I eventually connected with was that this campaign was started because there was some feeling that just didn't sit right in your stomach, right? And when I dissect it, I go, "Why? Why was this hashtag started? Why did the fans need to rally behind this?" It's simple: it's justice for whoever's out there. This guy, Han, happens to be your boy, your friend, your buddy, your older brother, part of the family. And even within Hollywood make-believe, when you discard a character and that history is eliminated, there's something wrong with that. And that's where out fire and excitement got ignited, that there's no revenge, it's actually just, "Wow, how amazing is it to be embraced by this fan base? And they want to fix something that is unsettled in their stomach." You don't discard your family, you have to address the issues, and then you move on. And sometimes it's just a hug, and sometimes you're in a room together and everything just works out. For me, that's what justice is, and how I represent that is I try to be the best version of myself when I show up, especially for the fans. And then when they get to see you, there is some type of justice - and they were a part of it. I think right now where the justice sits is that the fans got what they needed to settle their stomach.
What were the conversations like between you two when you were deciding to go forth and do this? You want to give the fans what they want but also you want to be realistic and not do something that doesn't make sense.
LIN: I actually held off connecting with Sung for awhile. I didn't want to just call him and say, this is what we're going to try to do, and then can't figure it out. I thin it would've just been emotionally scarring - and it was not an easy thing. Creatively, I was just going through so many different iterations. It wasn't until a scouting trip to Edinburgh; I was on the train ride to Edinburgh from London when I felt comfortable enough to text Sung and say, "Hey, we're going to do it." We were very deliberate in making sure that we didn't just jump in and say, "Oh, we're going to do this and that." It was always trying to earn our moments. So in many ways it was a little bit secluded and it just exponentially got more intense as we got closer to the day where he was going to be on set.
KANG: It's refreshing when Justin calls you and tells you that Han is coming back. All the worries tend to disappear, and in my head, I know the character's going to be protected. The rest is just excitement. It's like, "All right, we get to go to the playground again and play." And then you show up to set and no one's allowed to talk to you, and you don't get invited to any of the birthday parties, because you're a secret for the whole movie. [Laughs]
So I can imagine how glad you were that they revealed your return in the first trailer last January. Like imagine if you were just sitting around having to keep that secret. Was that a relief when you got the word they weren't holding that back?
KANG: It really was. And then all of a sudden the pandemic happened, and I was like, "Oh, what was the point of all that? You should have just held it." That's how life works.
LIN: My 11-year-old son still thinks that we should have held off the Han reveal.
KANG: Because he's smart. He's gonna work PR.
It's tough though to keep secrets now. Feels like that would have gotten out immediately after that first screening. Other than not getting party invites, what was it like that first day back on set?
KANG: It's nerve-wracking, because all your insecurities are being projected out of your head. In your heart, you're going, "Am I going to be accepted again? What's the vibe going to be like?" And you show up to set and it was like I never left. The laughs started happening, the hugs are throughout the day, and you just find your shorthand again. You walk away from it going, "I guess this is why the theme of Fast has always been family." With family, you can be away from each other for a while and then you come back and you just start over again like nothing happened, and that's how I felt. I have to give credit to Justin and the producers and Vin and everybody that dictated a positive vibe. It's always open arms and a dysfunctional family vibe going on. I felt very lucky that I could go back to a franchise and be accepted like that.
It's been eight years of real-world time since we last saw Han, so how would you say he's changed, and what state should we expect him to be in?
LIN: F9 is the beginning of sharing some of the experience that he's gone through. Within the spirit of Fast & Furious is to always evolve our characters, and I think you get a sense that there's been a lot of growth for Han, and there's a reason why he's been gone. I've always said one film is not enough to do justice. It's something that I feel like is setting us up for future journeys, not only explaining [why he was gone], but also sharing how he got to be where he is now.
KANG: The timing of Han's return was good for me as an actor because I'm older, I have more life experience. Some good, some hard; we all deal with life's issues. And it was easier to get into the skin of older Han, a Han with the deeper purpose, a why. Why is he coming back? Where's he been? What's he doing now? What's his state of mind now? I think the trappings of youth when you're younger, the cars and the crazy lifestyle and the money, you become centric to a degree. But then as you get older and you go into the ring with life, you come out of it, and if you're going to keep getting up, you have to throw those things away and you have to have foundation. I feel like this Han is just older and he's more grounded, and when he's there, he's there with purpose.
Justin, do you feel like you've played the last revival card that you have? We've got Letty back, we got Han back a few times.
LIN: This is a setup, isn't it?
No, but if you're taking recommendations...
LIN: [Laughs] Look, what I love about what we do is that we're not based on existing IPs or comic book, ad I've been doing this long enough to know that you just never say no to everything. But I do know that whatever we want to do, we have to earn it. It's been a really interesting journey to be such a big part of it and then leaving and then coming back. There's just been instances where there's characters that I've talked about, like Ramsey, and then she showed up! And so when I met with Nathalie [Emmanuel], I said, "Yeah, I was talking about your character and then now you actually exist in the universe." And so it's been a very unique journey. I know enough not to ever just cross things off - that's part of the essence of what we do. But I don't wake up trying to figure out how I want to bring people back from the dead. But it's also great to know that that's not off the table.
The anticipation for this movie was already ridiculously high, but with the fans having now waited an extra year to see F9, what would be your message to them as they prepare to finally reunite, in theaters, with the family?
LIN: I would say, hopefully you feel good enough to be able to go out together with whoever you love and care for and to go watch a movie again. It's interesting, because when I came back, talking to Vin, talking to studio, this is 2018, 2019, and I felt like as a movie-goer I wanted to go back to theater. And there's a tonal thing that we wanted the scale to be infinite, but at the same time, I wanted to push the boundaries, because I felt like that was missing from my movie-going experience. I think the fact that we shut down and we went through a pandemic, if anything, that's intensified. This thing has been conceived for that experience, and I really do feel like people are going to have a great time. You can laugh together, you can cheer together, and we can enjoy just being out with family but also a room full of strangers, and to be able to connect on something together.
KANG: Prior to the pandemic, it was more singular, more about, "Hey, the movie's coming out, you guys go watch it, support it, thank you so much." But now, I urge the fans out there, aside from the movie, just the experience, that romantic experience of going to get popcorn with your friends and getting some Milk Duds and standing in line at the concessions and the aroma of what a theater feels like, and the mutual laughs and the gasps and all the ahhs and the oohs while you're watching a movie together, that's something we took for granted. And now we realize human connection, just community, being together, laughing together, enjoying something together, is so important. I feel honored that this blockbuster is coming out at a time where hopefully we can really test the waters out there - and not just for ourselves. But as things start to clear up, this is important to cinema, arts, museums. Gathering together is so crucial to our state of being. Just strap in and go on a rollercoaster ride for two and a half hours. I think it gives the fans what they want, and even if you've never seen a Fast & Furious movie, I think you can just check out and enjoy it. It's the perfect recipe to open things up.
It's definitely my perfect recipe, so I can't wait. Thanks as always, guys.
LIN: Wait, Derek, can I just share one last thing? It's funny because I texted Sung last week, and there's been all this confusion on Han's name. And I know that part of it was on Fast Five, it was Han Solo. Somehow everyone thought that was his name. In the scene, when we were conceiving it, it was always about Han had a fake ID and that's why it was that name. And then after that people were saying his name was Han Lue and I don't know where that came from. I remember this goes all the way back to Better Luck Tomorrow, when every character had a first and last name, and Han was the only character that was just Han. That was always the spirit of Han, so I officially want to share with you that it's Han. Just Han.
Just Han, like Cher or Madonna. Great company.
LIN: One day we might reveal his last name, but right now it's just officially Han.
For more Fast, subscribe to EW's BINGE: The Fast Saga feed via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also subscribe to EW's YouTube page to catch all the video interviews, including Lin, Kang, and Vin Diesel.
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- Lucas Black on appreciating the 'unique' legacy of Tokyo Drift, reuniting with Fast family for F9