Han, Solo: On Tokyo Drift
I did not expect my initial viewing of Tokyo Drift to provoke an internal moral debate, but life and cars sometimes zig when I expect a zag. To paraphrase an old Yiddish proverb: when we plan, God and Vin Diesel laugh.
The third entry in the Fast and Furious franchise is an odd film that seemingly exists outside the high octane world we’ve come to know and love, at least until our greatest living American, Sir Vincent of Dieselshire, appears in a cameo at the end. The best character is a new guy who doesn’t get enough screentime (Han Lue, played by Sung Kang). And strangely, star Paul Walker is not in the third movie, apparently because the studio felt he was too old and this was to be a movie about teens. But he was very much on my mind while I watched it, for a most peculiar reason.
This film begins in a high school-adjacent setting. I have done my best to avoid most spoilers about these movies, as well as any salacious or distracting information about the people who helped make them. But one element bears mention. In 2006, when the film was released, a 33-year-old Walker was allegedly also spending time in a high school-adjacent setting.
I don’t know quite how to parse this information, which readers have repeatedly sent me since I began my Fast-watching odyssey, so I will simply refer you to the 2018 Jalopnik article “When Are We Going to Address How Paul Walker Had Relationships With Underage Girls?” and let you decide for yourself.
One of the most persistent cultural queries of our era is this: how do we feel when an artist we admire does something we do not admire? For me, this question arises around issues of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, financial malfeasance, anti-vaccine hallucinations, and, of course, sexual (mis)conduct.
If you find the behavior of a cast or crew member disturbing to the point that you can no longer enjoy the films on which that individual worked, I get it. In the case of Walker, a talented actor who died tragically in 2013 and who has been praised for his charitable works and for his apparent devotion as a father, it feels particularly strange to look at this aspect of his life.
But at the same time, I don’t think it disrespects the dead to address widely reported facts about the dead. I am not here to litigate aspects of a long-term relationship that may have initially been deemed nonconsensual by the state of California by virtue of the fact that when it began, one of the parties was under the age of consent.
I could’ve saved this discussion for a future movie, but it’s been weighing on my mind. Tokyo Drift felt like a pause in the series. Walker’s absence from the film, as well as the fact that it centers on teens, gave me a moment to think. I am not a parent, but I was once a high school teacher, and that brief experience forever changed the way I think about adolescent girls relating to older men.
Only you can decide how to process the reality of the artists who make the art you love. Readers of this essay likely came to it because they are fans of the Fast and Furious series in general, and perhaps of Walker in particular. We can hold different things in one space as we reflect on the legacy of a human being. And since we’re on this journey together, you and I, and since it’s a long fucking ride — and especially since Walker will join us for much of it — I figured it was worth noting.
I appreciate the first friend who was thoughtful enough to point it out to me privately. She felt it was something I should know, and I agree. Then more women — only women — sent me comments or articles about it, so it seems to be something others have considered over the years.
I will, of course, continue to watch the films. I love them. I also learned that I love coffee with butter in it. Perhaps I am a bro now, or perhaps I always have been. After all, I have paid off half of my beloved Peloton bicycle to nowhere. Art will teach you things about yourself, and sometimes these things are embarrassing.
Let us now turn to Tokyo Drift. Despite deft direction by the spectacularly talented Justin Lin, the film does suffer from the lack of Walker, whose onscreen charm and ability to play off male costars would’ve been most welcome here. For example, in 2 Fast 2 Furious, Walker and Tyrese elevated each other’s performances in the same way Walker and Diesel did in the first film.
Sadly, Tokyo Drift only features a tiny moment with Vincenzerino Dieselavalacqua, whose statue should replace all images of Christopher Columbus in Little Italys around the United States. I am aware that he is not of Italian descent, and I do not care. America is an adventure.
Speaking of our country, this film’s major strength is that it mainly does not take place here. We’re off to Japan, baby! What a nice vacation that must’ve been for viewers in 2006, as the Bush Administration lumbered through its second execrable term.
I shall now attempt, as best I can, to explain the plot.
Lucas Black is a boy with an Alabama accent. He likes cars. He has a mom who smokes. He gets in trouble a lot. There is a girl, who is shown to be a real piece of garbaaaaaaahj, as is his mom who smokes. What even is a girl person, really, but an obstacle to be overcome or a prize to be won?
Lucas Black gets in trouble and has to go away to Japan, where his Navy dude dad, a man with a hint of a Boston accent, or perhaps he is Canadian, lives in a tiny apartment. He seems to have consensual sex with local women. Navy Dad is not proud of Lucas Black, who often gets in trouble with The Law. Lucas Black blames Navy Dad for all his problems.
Lucas Black goes to school and meets Bow Wow, who is very funny and good in this role. His name is Shad Gregory Moss, but he was credited as Bow Wow for this film, and once upon a time he was Lil’ Bow Wow (you just don’t know.) Also, the 2001 video for “Take Ya Home” is bonkers, speaking of things that are age-inappropriate, including grown women in scant clothing apparently vying for the sexual interest of an 8th grader. On a less creepy note, fellow child Alyson Stoner is in it, as was legally required for memorable hip hop videos of this era.
Anyway, back to high school in Japan. Lucas Black and Bow Wow bond, and soon enough there is a Hot Girl, who is not ethnically Japanese, and thus is an outsider even though she was adopted by a Japanese family after her mom, a sex worker from Australia, died. This baffles Car Guy Played By Lucas Black who — despite being born in Alabama — apparently has never encountered the concepts of ethnic and racial tension, xenophobia, etc.
Nathalie Kelley, who is of Peruvian and Argentine descent, did indeed grow up in Australia, and she is quite charming, and she is in this movie. Also, she went to North Sydney Girls High School, where beautiful Australian girls go to learn maths. I think they say maths there. Nicole Kidman went to that high school, too. You have to sit for an exam to get in. Good job, Hot Future Famous Aussie Gals going to Sydney’s version of Bronx Science! (That’s where I did my student teaching in sunny NYC).
Alabama Car Guy Sean (his name is Sean!) gets into a rivalry with Hot Girl’s Hot Angry Adoptive Brother, who is also her boyfriend. He is angry and great at drifting, which is a thing where your car slides to the side while you race real hard. Sean Lucas Alabama does not know how to drift! But Hot Girl still likes him, probably because most of Australia is the Alabama of the world, except for two cities. Perhaps he reminds her of her dead mom, who consistently remains dead throughout the film.
Hot Angry Adoptive Brother has a Gangster Uncle. There are other characters, but now we meet the most important character, the one on whom this film should’ve been centered. His name is Han, and this is his movie.
I love Han. You love Han. The fans love Han. Han is hot and cool and he is also a car guy, and he enjoys many snacks. Han is played by Sung Kang, who was born in Georgia to Korean immigrant parents. Wikipedia says that he was raised by his mom and his African American stepfather, and that he eventually moved to Barstow, California — which, if you will recall, is where the characters played by Paul Walker and Tyrese in 2 Fast 2 Furious apparently grew up! Clearly, Sung Kang was fated for this role. That’s just movie science.
Sung Kang first played Han in director Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow, which received much critical acclaim upon its premiere at Sundance in 2002. I need to watch it, not just because it deals quite directly with racism against the AAPI community as well as issues of class and crime, but because it provides More Sung Kang For Your Buck, in the same way that Roadhouse gives us Maximum Swayze. Sure Better Luck Tomorrow was a well-reviewed and groundbreaking indie film and Roadhouse was Roadhouse (a perfect motion picture), but I am still right about this.
Why are there other actors in Tokyo Drift? This dude lights up the screen. His character is a goddamn treat. Circling back to Roadhouse, in which Sam Elliott’s character tragically dies, Sung Kang’s character tragically dies. Or I think he dies, but I didn’t see a funeral, and these are the kinds of movies where nobody is actually dead until you see them laid out in an open casket, and even then they might not be dead.
My point is that Sung Kang is the Sam Elliott of Tokyo Drift, and I would like to marry him.
Do I have to explain more about this film? Is there anything more to say? There is not. Art is complicated, people are complicated, but one thing is absolutely true: the studio should’ve just paid Justin Lin to make a four hour experimental art film with Han wandering a series of beautiful landscapes, like a great Western film of yore or perhaps Nomadland with cool cars and no other actors except Sung Kang.
I think we’ve earned that much.
For the first essay in this series, see “On The Fast and the Furious.”
For the second essay in this series, check out “On 2 Fast 2 Furious.”