Culture Sung Kang's Road Home: How His Fast & Furious Character Became a Lightning Rod

Kang's fan favorite is back from the dead in the new F9, and even the actor himself is realizing how meaningful the campaign to restore him really was.

Culture Sung Kang's Road Home: How His Fast & Furious Character Became a Lightning Rod

I’ve watched Sung Kang get into the same car accident many times. It always goes like this: He’s speeding in a metallic orange Mazda RX-7, racing through the streets of Tokyo, when something goes wrong. The car gets hit. The car gets flipped. The car explodes. Sung Kang dies. Over and over and over and over again.

It’s a scene that’s taken on a talismanic importance in the Fast & Furious movies and become a cornerstone of the increasingly internecine plotting. The crash first appeared in Tokyo Drift, and across the nine mainline films, it has been shown four times now; Fast & Furious has left an unbelievable amount of wrecked vehicles in its wake, but this is the only crash that gets repeated. They’ve never reshot the scene, instead polishing up footage from unused angles and putting it back on screen. It’s a death that matters, and the architects of these movies are constantly tweaking what, exactly, it means. Kang, who plays the fans’ beloved Han, laughs every time he watches it.

“I look so ridiculous in that scene,” Kang says. “I was upside down, and I was, like, holding my breath. I tried to make my face red.” Watch it again, and you’ll notice Han is looking a little rosy right before he passes. “It’s the stuff I used to do in front of mirrors as a kid” — pretending to die — “Do you close your eyes, or keep your eyes open?”

To explain why the Fast & Furious movies keep showing this one death again and again is to explain the overarching strangeness of this particular franchise. It’s a bizarre anomaly in the blockbuster landscape, a $6 billion series that’s written with no real plan from movie to movie, but with enough heart to imprint deeply on its fans (myself included). These are movies that are willing to change plots, soap opera style, based on whatever is needed next. It’s one of the most purely American stories ever told. And at its heart is Sung Kang’s Han.

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This week, Kang returns to reprise his role once again in F9. It’s his third trip back, and one he didn’t see coming. His character’s arc had been salvaged once before, and he was at peace with his role as a supporting character in one of the most commercially successful film series of all time coming to an end. But the fans weren’t. Kang’s reappearance is the story of a group of people who picked a hill to die on, and yelled, loudly, about a seemingly innocuous injustice that was anything but. It’s a story of who does and doesn’t get to be a star in America.

A brief note on spoilers: I’m going to reveal a lot of plot points in this profile, but even if you haven’t seen a single frame of a Fast & Furious film, you can keep reading. I could describe an elephant to you — crevassed hide, billowing ears, a dexterous trunk — but it wouldn’t explain much about what it would feel like to stand next to one. Similarly, reading the plot section of a Fast movie’s Wikipedia might give you the broadest strokes of what to expect from it, but they generally must be seen to be believed.]

Kang’s Han, while a fan favorite, is not an original cast member. He first appeared in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third film, and one that should have failed. The franchise’s primary stars — Vin Diesel and Paul Walker — had exited for ostensibly greener pastures, and so Tokyo Drift was filmed with an entirely new cast who had no relation to the earlier Fast entries. It was directed by Justin Lin, who had just directed a critical and commercial failure, Annapolis. Universal was considering making it a DVD-only release.

“It’s a movie about cars in Tokyo, it can go bad. It could go down the wrong road and be really hokey,” Kang says. “It was supposed to go on DVD, no stars from the original — it could have been as cheesy as Karate Kid with cars.” Instead, the film’s innovative race scenes (the “drift” in the title is literal) and Kang’s character made it a cult hit.

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Sung Kang's Road Home How His 'Fast  Furious' Character Han Became a Lightning Rod

Kang had always wanted to be in movies, rehearsing his on-camera deaths in front of the mirror as a child. There was a huge Korean population in Gainesville, Georgia, which was why his family moved there. And he was always looking for Asian actors, to no avail at the time. “It was the search for my face, you know? Where’s me? There was one in Goonies.” But he did find other people to idolize, and started to emulate the laid-back cool of the Paul Newmans and Steve McQueens of the world.

When Kang got the offer to play Han, it was a single-scene role: He was going to toss his keys to the main character, played by Lucas Black, who would take his car, attempt to win a race in a parking garage, and crash. It was a role meant for a cameo; the studio wanted a rapper to play it, to appeal to a broader audience, but when Bow Wow signed on for a different supporting role, Kang got the nod. It wasn’t the meaty role he had been envisioning, but it was a way in.

Kang played Han with a studied, laconic charm, and it put his unpretentious but undeniable good looks on display: all high cheekbones and sweeping curtains of hair. But Han is also a deeply melancholic character, someone who’s cool and collected and has a story you’ll never hear all of. It’s an odd choice for the second lead in a franchise reboot, and a more delicate touch than the Fast movies had seen before, or since. “He's the guy that is in control of his, you know, his room, his world, but yet it's easygoing,” Kang says. “So where do you get that? Where do you get that confidence, that purpose? And so, you know, I hung out with a lot of dudes from L.A. that have that swagger. And I was like, where did they come from? It comes from community, man.” It’s clear that Kang was pulling from the Newman and McQueen playbooks — with an added Pitt-esque obsession with constantly snacking. What’s most surprising is how well his performance worked.

Sung Kang's Road Home How His 'Fast  Furious' Character Han Became a Lightning Rod

The Fast movies primarily operate in two modes: Action and Family. The action scenes are the draw; similar to the later-stage Mission Impossible films, they stage stunts that represent the height of human creativity, an ever-escalating gambit attempting to answer the question of “What will they do next?” In between the setpieces, though, are moments of disarming sincerity. The characters will often tell each other that they love them with the earnesty of a small child. That both modes exist next to each other is the strange alchemy that’s made the franchise something that audiences feel a genuine connection to. These are ridiculous films with a heart.

Though it’s somewhat of a minor entry in the series, Tokyo Drift has taken on an outsized importance, largely because of Kang’s portrayal of Han. Once he was on set, director Justin Lin — a close collaborator and the eventual creative force behind the entire franchise — began rewriting to expand his role. And the results were surprisingly emotionally affecting. Lucas Black’s character asks Han why he would let someone borrow his car, and receives in return a monologue about how one creates a chosen family. “It’s trust and character I need around me,” Han says. “Who you choose to be around lets you know who you are.”

Even after filming an outsized amount of lines for the character, Kang didn’t think too much of it. He arrived at the premiere for the film with low expectations. “You have PTSD because, prior to that, I’ve been in so many things where I’ve been cut out.” But this time, once the movie started, he was shocked to see how much screen time he was getting. Every scene was a Han scene; he couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom in case he missed himself.

“All of a sudden, people are staring at you, going, ‘Hey, you're the star of the movie’ [when] I'm just a part of it. It was totally unexpected. People actually coming up to you and saying ‘I love Han.’ People saying the character's name, how do you predict that? I had no idea.” Kang says. “It's one of those things that taught me a lesson to not go into any project with expectations, go in there with sincerity and passion to just play the role. And that's how it becomes beloved, I think. And, you know, and if you get one or twice in your career, you're lucky. You are so lucky.”

Han dies in Tokyo Drift, in his orange Mazda. It makes sense, and lends the story its weight. The film ends with Lucas Black racing a yakuza member, which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, if you’re wondering why someone would do that. “[Han’s death] actually supports the finale of someone going and doing a race — What's the point? Like, run away now,” Kang says. What are you going to go race against? Because he killed Han. Of course you're going to say we've got to find justice, right?”

Sung Kang's Road Home How His 'Fast  Furious' Character Han Became a Lightning Rod

Tokyo Drift was the least commercially successful of the Fast movies, but it has grown to become a fan favorite in the ensuing 15 years, in large part because it’s the movie that kept the series alive. Eventually, Vin Diesel abandoned his other projects, and came back — with Lin at the helm. And Kang’s performance was widely praised; it’s easy to imagine that if Tokyo Drift came out today, he would have a cavalcade of offers for high profile roles by tomorrow. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Kang wasn’t surprised. He and Lin had been through this before. Four years before, they had made a film that got into Sundance: Better Luck Tomorrow, a movie about wayward Asian teenagers in Southern California who ditch high school antics for sex, drugs, and guns. “We were at our third screening and this guy started berating us, saying how ‘Shame on us’ that we would make a movie that represented our community in such a negative way.” says Kang. “Roger Ebert was there, and he defended us and said that our only responsibility was to make a good movie. And, you know, why do we have to be the model minority to make white journalists comfortable? It became a bidding war for the movie. And then we go on this Cinderella story at Sundance.”

Kang didn’t have high hopes for stardom after Tokyo Drift because he’d exhausted them on Better Luck Tomorrow. “At the moment we're thinking now the gates are going to be open for us,” he says. “There's going to be agents and all that.” But after a long tour of speaking engagements for Asian students at colleges across the country, Kang still wasn’t a full-time actor.

“You feel inadequate, you feel insecure, you blame yourself or maybe I don't have the time to question yourself, all of those things. Frustrated, confused, lost,” he says. “It's still hard. I mean, like every job I go, it could be my last job, you know, and I'm like holding my breath. But what's next? Can I survive this? Is there going to be a drought again? What's going to keep me going eventually has nothing to do with money. It's purpose. How long can you go playing characters that don't really matter, how long can you just go through the motions? Because I came to this town to be an actor, to compete with everybody else. Like, I want to do Oscar-level work. I don't need the Oscar, but I want to play three dimensional roles that, you know, have nothing to do with this face.”

Kang started to temper his expectations. He’d always wanted to play deeper characters, but he also thought he would make a good Batman. Now, that felt delusional. And every time he talked to studio executives, they only ever cited the demographics of Asians in America. As if they were the only people that would buy tickets to see a movie featuring him.

But even if Hollywood wasn’t knocking down Kang’s door, Justin Lin was. Once Diesel rebooted the Fast series with Lin at the helm, they found ways to slyly insert Han back into the mix. It took a while for anyone to understand why a character that was dead was back, but the canon started to emerge: They were telling the story out of order. It’s one of the more audacious storytelling moves in franchise filmmaking: the third entry of the Fast movies takes place between the sixth and seventh, chronologically. All to get Han back in the mix, and introduce him to the main characters.

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By Fast Five, still the high watermark for the series and the film in which Lin announced himself as an action auteur, Kang was part of the family. He wasn’t a lead, but he was undeniably one of the fan favorites, romancing Gal Gadot and playing across from Diesel and Walker. Han’s death is still looming, but Kang was always at peace with that. “That was all unexpected because with each movie, it was like, ‘Maybe this is the last one.’ So we're like, ‘Let's enjoy it, man.’ We're in Puerto Rico and we get free bottled water.”

Eventually, of course, it had to end. Han’s car had to crash for good, and Kang’s red face was shown on screen for one last time. Eventually, as the Fast movies are wont to do, it was retconned once again; Han hadn’t died in that car crash racing away from the Yakuza in Tokyo Drift. He’d actually been murdered, by one Jason Statham, the villain in the seventh entry. This was fine; expected, even. Fast & Furious consistently raises the stakes, and Han’s death was a reliable well for character motivation.

But then, with the same reckless abandon that led to Movie Number Three coming between Movies Six and Seven, the films wrote Jason Statham’s character (and Han’s murderer — there are a lot of details flying around by now) into the crew, working with Vin Diesel and co. to defeat other, more dangerous villains. This was a mistake.

Fast & Furious fans were livid at what they saw as a betrayal. The action can get ridiculous in these movies; no one asks how a bank vault can be dragged through Rio de Janeiro, or why no one can die of a fall if they land on a moving car, or how The Rock can flex his way out of a cast. But this was different. Behind all the spectacle, these were stories about a disparate group of people who had a desperate, searching loyalty to one another. The ever-heightened stunts could be waved off as ridiculous, but at their heart these films are about finding the people you love most in the world and trying to keep them safe. Even when a dreadlocked cyberterrorist named Cypher, played by Charlize Theron, is in the mix.

The outrage was marshalled in part by the Los Angeles Times writer Jen Yamato, who Kang credits with helping him see why fans were more angry than he was. At first, he thought the Justice For Han campaign was a joke, and a little embarrassing. But he eventually started to see it a little differently. “He passes away and the guy who kills him gets called into the fold — that makes no sense? Is it because he’s Asian that it doesn’t matter?” Kang says. “It has to do with status. I think if I was Tom Cruise, they wouldn’t do that. I’m not a movie star.”

“I don’t think they knew the impact,” he says of the plotting decisions — he didn’t either. But the campaign kept garnering steam, and people started to take notice of the hundreds of forum posts, articles, and social media hashtags. It was a simple cause — we don’t like what this movie did — but underneath it was a different tenor to many fan campaigns. It was more of a bid to be seen than anything else, and, eventually, they were. “They moved mountains to bring me back,” says Kang.

More important to Kang than getting back to the films was the outpouring of support, which made him realize that he’d been thinking about things all wrong. “I used to keep arm's length about talking about Fast & Furious because I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor,” says Kang. Now, he thinks playing Han has made him a better person. “When I was younger, I was insecure about myself and my abilities. As I've gotten older, you know, you make mistakes and then you learn things to build your character and the person that you want to be. You know, we're all playing versions of ourselves. And then we wake up in the morning to play the, you know, the TV version of yourself. And Han is cool because it makes you accountable.”

The road by which F9 explains Han’s long absence is circuitous, fun, and faintly ridiculous. It also doesn’t matter. The whole idea is just to have Kang back in the role. There’s a scene in the film where he’s finally reunited with the whole crew; Lin kept Kang off of the set until they filmed it. All they really do when they meet is hug. “I think Jordana [Brewster] is the best, she has kids and she's a big hugger,” Kang says. “Vin gives strong, deep hugs. He wears those cutoffs and sometimes the temperature from the armpit is, you know, it's disturbing.”

And now, 15 years after Tokyo Drift, Kang feels like the conversations he’s having are not always about why he can’t be in big movies. The young executives he works with on the Fast movies are genuine Han fans — “that means a lot to them” — and he says he no longer feels like a character once destined for a cameo. “They would come up to me and they were so excited about me coming back. We grew up with them.”

Higher profile work is also, slowly, starting to roll in. Kang plays a role he can’t disclose much about in the Obi-Wan Kenobi prequel series at Disney Plus, sure to be a hit. But it’s hard to trust the industry; it could all still evaporate. “Just because I have a couple of high profile projects under my belt, I feel like I'm a guest at the table, but I want to start telling my own stories, he says. “On a personal level, I'm not satisfied with my contribution as an artist yet.”

“There's possibilities that, you know, they're willing to listen to me finally. These projects like Fast and Star Wars, you have to have them in your resume. It's a stamp of legitimacy before you get in the room that he's the right guy and he's been part of that. Obviously, he has something to offer.”

But in the past year, Kang has started to think not just in terms of his career, but also about what he can do if he can continue to reach these larger audiences. A few months ago, he was walking in London when three men came up to him and called him Asian slurs. “What I saw in their eyes was they saw me as subhuman. As someone to be attacked and ridiculed. It could have gotten so physical.”

It didn't, but the encounter still had lasting effects. “That triggered into anger. I’m angry, and then I get defensive, and then I get protective. I get scared. Complete paranoia. And everyone at work — everyone in London — I’m second guessing them. I’m second guessing my place in this world. You don’t want me here. Dude, it went into this spiral. I didn’t want to act anymore.”

Before this, Kang hadn’t been speaking publicly about the attacks against Asian people across the world. Now, he sees his acting as a tool — one among many — to show people he cares about that they’re not alone, that there are no easy answers. It took some time to overcome his reluctance. At one point he told friends he didn't want to address it at all. “But then I started looking at my social media and I thought, ‘You doofus.’ How is retreating helping anything?”

“I ask myself, ‘What’s my contribution?’ The contribution is that I can touch people. That’s a gift.”

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