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The Return of Han

After his killer was welcomed to the team with open arms in ‘The Fate of the Furious,’ the ninth installment of the ‘Fast’ franchise is once again bending the laws of nature to bring back the fan favorite

Juliette Toma

The first time Justin Lin heard about #JusticeForHan, he was under a bright spotlight at the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Following a special 15th anniversary screening of Better Luck Tomorrow, the director had taken the stage at the Egyptian Theatre to reminisce about his early indie breakthrough alongside the cast. But during the Q&A portion of the event, one audience member switched topics and pressed the filmmaker to respond to the recent Fast & Furious hashtag that was quickly gaining steam around the internet.

Lin, the director responsible for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth movies in the high-octane franchise, was caught off guard. He hadn’t seen the series’ eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious, directed by F. Gary Gray, which had been released two weeks earlier. Subsequently, he hadn’t heard about its controversial ending. (“You’re not going to be a fanboy of every movie after you leave something that took almost half your life,” says Sung Kang, who stood next to Lin on stage that night.) “I was baffled,” Lin recalls. “I’ll be honest, I was a little bit upset.”

There is some deep mythology in the Fast franchise at this point, full of hard-earned lessons and blood-bonded relationships. Keeping track of it all is like maintaining a tome on Arthurian legend. The important parts, for our purposes, are this: The fan-favorite street racer Han Lue (Sung Kang) was introduced in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the series’ third installment. He was also killed in that film, dying in a fiery car crash in the Tokyo streets. But he was not gone forever—the fourth, fifth, and sixth films revealed themselves to be prequels to Tokyo Drift, and therefore able to feature a still-breathing Han. The end of the sixth film closed that confounding time loop in its end credits, restaging Han’s death scene but showing that actually, a British assassin named Deckard Shaw—brother to the villain in Fast & Furious 6, and therefore a main boss of sorts—was responsible for it. In the next film, Furious 7, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his devoted clan all vowed to avenge Han’s death, and were successful, defeating Shaw and sending him to a maximum security prison. But just as quickly as they achieved vengeance did they erase it. In The Fate of the Furious, Shaw, the man who killed their friend in cold blood, is brought into the fold to take down a common enemy. Dom lets him in the same room as his only child without even a mention of Han. By the end of the film, Dom is sharing food and drink with the villainous character at a rooftop barbecue. (Barbecues are like the Marriage at Cana in the Fast universe—truly sacred events.)

For a franchise built so religiously on the themes of loyalty and family, in which backyard, Corona-fueled dinners function as semi-communions, Dom’s easy forgiveness felt like a betrayal. How could Han, who embodied such cool charisma in Tokyo Drift and became increasingly instrumental to each sequel’s global appeal, be so casually dismissed and forgotten by his family members? Lin, who originally conceived the Korean character and bent time to include him in his three sequels, struggled to comprehend the creative decisions being made in his absence. “It felt like this beloved character was being tossed aside,” Lin says. “As if he was nothing.”

Han’s die-hard fans felt the same way. Upon seeing the eighth movie, filmmaker BenDavid Grabinski visited a local bar to commiserate with Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Jen Yamato. Grabinski had latched on to Han’s smooth and even-keeled charm, and he couldn’t believe the man responsible for eliminating Han from the franchise was now part of Dom’s family. “Everyone has their own idea of what is forgivable in a fictional universe,” he says. “To quote Michael Jordan, I took that personally.” An original adopter of #JusticeForHan, Grabinski found he wasn’t alone in tweeting his displeasure, as a small chorus of Han acolytes ballooned into a social media movement a few days after Fate’s premiere, spurred on by an article Yamato wrote about the burgeoning hashtag. “At what point, in a $4 billion global action franchise like this,” Yamato asks, “does the idea of ‘family’ belong more to its fans than its creators?”

Four years later, Lin has answered that question, grabbing the reins of the franchise once again and atoning for its storytelling sins. Initially teased at a Super Bowl fan event in 2020, and finally confirmed more than a year later, F9 brings Han back, returning to the scene of his fiery wreckage once more to reveal how he escaped from death’s clutches. It’s an about-face in keeping with the movies’ ludicrous stunts, implausible physics, and fungible plot lines, and most importantly, it restores a crucial part of Dom’s diverse family. But it’s also another example of a major studio and filmmaker communicating with an online fan campaign, a loose collaboration that suggests sustained, well-meant outrage—the opposite of targeted, coordinated attacks—can also have creative power in Hollywood.

“I give the fans 100 percent credit,” Lin says. “If none of that happened, and there was no movement, Han would actually stay gone.”

Coincidentally, Han’s creation dates back to Better Luck Tomorrow. In Lin’s 2002 directorial debut, which premiered at Sundance and put the Taiwanese filmmaker on the map, Kang plays another character named Han, one of four overachieving Asian American teenagers who sell academic cheat sheets and deal drugs around their Orange County neighborhood. The character is the group’s coolest member, a guy who smokes and drinks and who drives his friends around Los Angeles with a quiet, intimidating confidence—exactly the kind of character Lin wanted to drop into Tokyo Drift a few years later.

The director had originally turned down Universal’s offer to take over the then-two-movie franchise, annoyed by the way the initial Tokyo Drift script had depicted all of its Asian characters as villains. When executive Stacey Snider offered him creative freedom, however, Lin pitched the studio on an Asian American to play a big-brother-type antihero. Originally named Phoenix, the character puzzled executives. “How do we make an Asian American dude cool?” they asked Lin. “What does that mean?”

“[Justin] understood we can’t take it personally because they’d probably never hung out with Asian people and they don’t know what a cool Asian guy is,” Kang says. “You dont have to be a gangster or a Yakuza guy to be cool, you can just be a guy that works at a bakery [and] has fucking swagger.” Struggling to get through, Lin finally just showed them Better Luck Tomorrow. “He’s like, ‘Hey, here is a nondescript Asian American character, and also he auditioned for the lead,” Kang says.

Due to the open-ended conclusion of Better Luck Tomorrow, Lin was frequently asked about where his characters had gone after high school. Tokyo Drift, he figured, would answer part of that question. “There was a very limited time until cameras started rolling, [and] I was just frantically writing,” Lin says. “But then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just get Sung?’ Let’s build off it, and it would be a lot more concrete.” After Lin continued “championing and planting seeds” with the studio, Kang says, the actor officially signed on, and the two began evolving his original character. “We just decided to make it Han, probably more spiritually than literally,” Lin says. “And that just became our thing.”

As filming progressed, the connections between both iterations of the character justified Lin’s decision. Throughout Tokyo Drift, Han is a social magnet, the life of parties, the wisest and coolest person in any room. He’s also a frequent snacker of chips, a humorous, recurring trait that resembles Brad Pitt’s constant munching in Ocean’s Eleven. “Han smoked all the time in Better Luck Tomorrow [but] I didn’t want him smoking in Tokyo Drift,” Lin says. “So Sung was like, ‘Well, if I quit, I would be eating all the time.’” On top of his heart-wrenching death, Han’s guidance and wisdom cemented him as the movie’s standout, exemplified in a rooftop scene in which Han waxes about Tokyo being his “Mexico,” an escape across the border. “Life’s simple,” he says. “You make choices and you don’t look back.”

Originally, Tokyo Drift looked like the logical conclusion to the franchise. It didn’t have any stars and operated on a smaller budget. “We definitely had a sense that this was it,” says executive producer Clayton Townsend. “I never got the sense that there was any longevity to the sequels at that point.” But after the studio convinced Vin Diesel to make an epilogue cameo to connect the trilogy, continuing the universe became a real option. Lin had already told executive Jeff Kirschenbaum he wouldn’t be interested in returning to direct the fourth movie—he wanted to get back to the indie world. But then, near the beginning of 2007, Lin, his wife, and Kang pulled into an Arby’s off the side of I-5 and the director changed his mind.

On their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to take part in the city’s annual Chinese New Year parade, the three stopped to eat at a roadside steakhouse. But when they found it was closed, the director suggested roast beef instead. “He goes, ‘Let’s just go to Arby’s,’” Kang laughs. Upon entering the fast-food joint, the teenagers working behind the counter suddenly lost their minds. “They’re like, ‘Han! Han! Oh my God!’” Kang remembers. “Literally the restaurant stops, nothing moves anymore because the whole kitchen comes out, everyone wants pictures.” Kang occasionally had fans recognize him and address him by his character’s name, but the excitement from the predominantly Latinx and Black staffers and customers was beyond anything Lin had ever seen.

“There was this huge group of people just wanting to be around him,” Lin says. “I was sitting there looking at the scene—‘Wow, there really is a connection to this character that I never knew.’” Without social media to track reactions and conversation, Lin hadn’t considered that Han could have earned such a passionate following. It was his first window into Han as an icon. “He saw how affectionate they were to me and what I meant to them,” Kang says. “We were never considered cool, man. … It was always fighting the stereotype and preconceived notions, and now, based on a character in the movie, we were able to change that.”

“Too bad Han is dead,” Lin told Kang as they drove away from the restaurant. But then Kang looked at Lin, he says, and wondered: Does he have to be?

Two years earlier, Lin had talked to Diesel at length about Dom and Han’s relationship, and suddenly, in the car, he realized Han’s prequel potential. After all, Tokyo Drift had always been meant to be a postmodern movie, unattached to any specific time frame. “At that point we started leaning into the mythology,” Lin says. Soon, he was pitching Universal a fourth movie that went back in time, before the events of Tokyo Drift. The studio worried audiences would get confused by the timeline change, but Lin insisted it wouldn’t be an obstacle. “I believe that our audience is smart and they’re going to get it,” Lin remembers telling executives. “If anything, if they actually care enough to have that conversation, that means they care about us as a franchise.”

Released in 2009, Fast & Furious would ultimately earn $360 million worldwide at the box office and reset the course of the franchise. Han returned (with a wink to his future in Tokyo) and Dom’s ethnically diverse family expanded. Later that summer, Diesel released his own short film, Los Bandoleros, a 20-minute prologue detailing how Dom met Han and the rest of his international crew. Over the next two movies, Dwayne Johnson joined the cast, production moved to ever more global locales, and Han gained a love interest in team member Gisele (Gal Gadot), becoming a more crucial part of each movie’s high-stakes mission. “I feel like [Justin] always had a strong feeling of how it might work, every aspect of Han throughout the series,” Townsend says. “He had a very unflinching desire to keep that going.”

But by 2013, Lin was ready to hand off the franchise to someone else. He made Fast & Furious 6 his final movie of his franchise, closing the loop on Han’s death and introducing Jason Statham as his killer, a bittersweet setup for the seventh chapter. As Han’s creator, Lin felt responsible for ending the arc of the character he’d revived. “I realized it was time for me,” Lin says, “and I thought, OK great, I’m taking Han with me.”

Watching Han die a second time in theaters wasn’t easy for Grabinski. The filmmaker had been a Fast & Furious fan since seeing the first movie, but he wasn’t hooked until Tokyo Drift. He loved the way Han’s attitude grounded and counterbalanced the movie’s high-throttle set pieces, and imagined him having a “cool, tragic outlaw background” based on the hints in his dialogue. Still, he appreciated Lin’s devotion to ending Han’s timeline in the sixth movie, and, like most fans, figured the character would be avenged properly in the next sequel. “That’s how much they liked Han. They’re going to spend 2.5 hours getting the guy that killed him,” Grabinski remembers thinking. “And then someone decided, ‘We’re going to make that guy a good guy.’”

Staying true to Lin’s setup, Furious 7, directed by James Wan, begins with Han’s funeral and spends the length of its running time on a story centered on vengeance. Shaw stokes the flames even more when he bombs Dom’s home and nearly kills his sister Mia’s baby in the process. By the movie’s end, the crew has successfully put Shaw in prison, a more satisfying punishment than watching him get crushed by a collapsing parking garage. The movie was a massive success, earning a colossal $1.5 billion at the global box office, the most of any Fast movie, and tenderly phasing out Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Conner after the actor tragically died in the middle of shooting.

But in keeping Shaw alive, Furious 7 gave producers an opportunity to flip Statham from a one-off into a franchise regular. They had already successfully pulled off the idea with Johnson, whose antagonist in Fast Five, Luke Hobbs, eventually joined forces with Dom and the family. There were box office receipts and character blueprints to back up the move, yet somehow producers overlooked one glaring difference between Hobbs and Shaw: Hobbs never killed any good guys, let alone someone as beloved as Han. (As a further twist of the knife, Shaw was also later teamed with Hobbs for their own Fast spinoff.) “All those things make sense from a business decision,” Grabinski says, “but for me, it felt like it had invalidated several movies at once.”

Philbert Dy, a Filipino film critic, had the same reaction following Fate. “When you watch Fast and Furious 8 tomorrow, try to remember that Deckard Shaw killed Han. #justiceforhan,” he tweeted before the movie’s release. Although Dy isn’t even a Han loyalist, that plot point was all he could think about when exiting his screening. “I don’t look to the Fast & Furious movies for representation,” Dy says. “[But] it struck me. They killed off the one Asian character, and now they’re working with another white man. … These movies are not supposed to be super thematically consistent, but come on man, that was basic.”

The week after Yamato’s article was published, the hashtag began multiplying, and the search term “Han Lue’’ reached peak levels, according to Google Trends. Over the next couple of years, #JusticeForHan stuck around, spiking whenever news of Hobbs & Shaw emerged online. Though producer Neal Moritz tried to explain the decision-making behind Shaw’s integration (“The reason [Shaw] did all this was to protect his family, and I think that that was the reason that there’s an understanding,” he told ComingSoon.net), fans remained adamant that the ninth installment address their slow-burning campaign. “We knew we couldn’t use logic to explain this movie,” says Julyn, the owner of a Sung Kang Facebook fan page. “Han could not be forgotten. That’s why fans around the world focused on F9.”

Their patience would eventually pay off in dramatic fashion. On January 31, 2020, during Super Bowl weekend, Universal Studios unveiled a four-minute teaser trailer for F9 with a series of musical performances and interviews before a large crowd of fans in Miami. The four-minute trailer, now viewed over 52 million times, boasts all the movie’s requisite automotive insanity and introduces John Cena as Dom’s long lost brother. Then, at its end, Han walks through an underground tunnel, snacking on a bag of chips, and hugs Dom before the tagline “Justice Is Coming” flashes onto the screen.

Although fans didn’t know the context of Han’s return, suddenly, it appeared three years of campaigning had paid off. After watching the trailer, “my body lost all motor control,” says Germain Lussier, an entertainment writer and Han superfan. “It was a fun thing that I felt passionate about and that I knew a lot of fans felt passionate about, but I never thought it would actually come to fruition because they had made such a point of him being dead in two movies.”

But considering the way Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez, returned after escaping a similar fiery car wreck after her presumed death in the fourth movie, the revelation was plausible. It also wouldn’t have happened without Lin. He’d always been intrigued by the central theme of family, and agreed to return to the Fast world in order to explore more of Dom’s background in F9. But then, inundated by so much demand for Han, he admits, “It became very obvious that if I’m going to come back, I have to do something—we have to correct a wrong.”

Near the beginning of F9, a large jeep falls on top of Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson). He looks all but crushed to death. But a few moments later, he reappears from behind the vehicle unharmed and smiling. A prelude to Han’s unlikely resurrection, the gag underscores the invincibility of the franchise’s protagonists and Lin’s own self-awareness. In the Fast universe, nothing is ever as it appears.

Invincibility can often be an obstacle for building emotional stakes, but it does leave the door ajar for movements like #JusticeForHan. It’s just the latest example in Hollywood of successful social media campaigning. In 2019, after Paramount released a trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, storms of fans reacted negatively to the character’s anthropomorphic aesthetic, eventually forcing the studio to redesign its furry protagonist and delay its release. A few months ago, HBO Max released its four-hour “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, the result of years of Zack Snyder superfans harassing Warner Bros. with emails, petitions, and Twitter replies, demanding to see the director’s extended cut.

Relenting to audience pressures can be a slippery slope, Grabinski believes, because “once someone gets what they want, they may think that there’s more of an interactive part of the development of these movies.” It’s also easy for studios to fall prey to a specific niche of online fans. “It isn’t that they’re getting to see what people want, they’re getting to see what the loudest people want,” Dy says. “And that might not be the best decision.” But unlike the fervent, undying #ReleaseTheSnyderCut armies, who have now moved on to other DCEU directors, the #JusticeForHan movement was less a coordinated attack than a consistent outpouring of disappointment. It’s an organic wave that isn’t merely propelled by people wanting to have it their way. “#JusticeForHan is not just about bringing him back to life,” Lin says. “It’s really about the treatment of these characters, and it ultimately is the treatment of all our characters.”

For Townsend, who worked with Lin on Fast & Furious 6 and F9 as an executive producer, watching Kang reunite with the cast was jaw-dropping. The actor’s return affirmed the importance in having a healthy and open dialogue with fans, especially over sensitive material like a character’s posthumous treatment. And in the case of online sentiment, “I won’t say it fully pushes everybody into one direction or another, but it’s certainly considered,” Townsend says. “The comments that [fans] make are all a part of the pitch. I think that’s what’s great—it keeps the relationship between the fans and the filmmakers living and breathing.”

On a personal level, Kang remains grateful for and humbled by what the franchise has given him, particularly the ability to keep working with a longtime friend and collaborator in Lin. “These opportunities have come later in my life,” Kang says. “A couple years ago, you go, ‘Am I going to work again? Are there going to be opportunities?’ And the hashtag and fans start to create something and you go, ‘Why is this happening?’ I hope—and it might sound hokey—it’s because I strive to be a better person each day.”

And though Han’s resurrection isn’t the main thrust of F9, “justice is ultimately served in how we treat him now that he’s back,” says Lin, who will direct the final two Fast installments. It’s an enticing proposition for those who dutifully kept the hashtag alive, and a reminder that enthusiasm for a character, be it online or off the side of a highway, can be the difference in keeping something alive.

“It’s been a really fascinating journey,” Lin laughs. “Sometimes it takes a little moment at Arby’s.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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