When I was in college, there were so few Asian directors working in Hollywood that when one of them made a hot new movie, it was important to see it, to show support. And in 2002, thanks in part to a controversial screening at Sundance, the hot new movie was Better Luck Tomorrow, and the hot new Asian director was Justin Lin.
I went to the theater with my college roommate (and fellow Asian film student), Alan, and, for the most part, the movie was pretty good — it felt like a lot of the other movies in the late ’90s/early ’00s indie scene — skillfully made and interesting, full of thematically relevant intertitles, and careful, measured use of we-don’t-have-enough-money-for-coverage long takes.
And then, as the movie reached its climax, Justin Lin busted out this shot (it’s much longer in the actual movie, but you get the gist here):
I remembered nothing in the movie after that scene. It was like my brain froze. Walking out of the theater, I turned to Alan and said something like:
WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT BULLSHIT THAT JERK WAS JUST SHOWING OFF WITH THAT STUPID REVOLVING SHOT NOW ALL I CAN DO IS THINK ABOUT THE CAMERAWORK IN WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE MOST DEVASTATING MOMENT OF THE FILM!
You could say I was mad at Justin Lin.
So mad that I held a grudge against him; you know, those really deep grudges that you can only hold against someone you’ve never met, so you can pretend it isn’t a real person on the other end. Those grudges are easy to come by today (just go on Twitter for thirty seconds), but back then, someone really had to earn it.
I held that grudge so hard that a few years later, in 2006, I refused to see The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Even though all my friends were going. Even though it was an Asian-heavy cast, and deep down, I still wanted to show support. Just not for that hack.
I held that grudge so hard that a few years after that, in 2009, I didn’t want to see Fast & Furious, for much of the same reasons, and only agreed when my old college roommate, Alan (who by this point was a film development executive) told me it was worth checking out.
Because I didn’t want to go in not knowing what happened in the third movie (and not realizing the third movie had almost nothing to do with the fourth), I borrowed a DVD of The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and began to watch, arms folded, waiting to be disappointed.
At the start, I was too distracted by the cast (the kid from Sling Blade! The oldest son from Home Improvement! Bow Wow! The tall Korean guy from Better Luck Tomorrow!) to give the movie much of a chance.
But about halfway through, we got to the scene where the characters tell us their very important views on life. In it, Tall Korean Guy gave a nice speech about being a man and being able to judge character or something, and then Sling Blade Kid asked him why, if it wasn’t for the money, he was a drift racer.
“You really want to know?”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Justin Lin might as well have been talking directly to me with that shot. This wasn’t just the wiser, older character telling the young upstart his very important views, this was the wiser, older filmmaker telling the young, annoying kid to pay attention. Telling me that yes, he knew he was showing off. But also, asking me to trust him. To let him show me what else he could do with the camera.
In that moment, I agreed to his terms.
And then came the Shibuya Crossing sequence:
From that point, I was mesmerized. This movie had its flaws, certainly, but despite my best efforts to hold on to my grudge, I was engaged. And that camera that I once complained about, that camera that once felt distracting, suddenly demanded my attention.
The next day, I went to see Fast & Furious in the theater. To my surprise and delight, Justin Lin’s camera was working in full force, even during intense, dramatic scenes:
Adding just the right amount of visual flair to those times when, you know, you stare at tire marks and piece together a crime scene like a goddamn psychic.
I became a fan. An advocate. And by the time Justin Lin helmed the near-perfect “Modern Warfare” episode of Community a year later, it was more than clear: Justin Lin was (and really, had always been) an action director.
The only thing missing for Justin and his smooth, sweeping camera was his opus. An action sequence truly worthy of his visual ability. And by 2011, he’d show us what he was working on:
Fast Five, and specifically that vault sequence (which, to this day, is one of those scenes I will wait for on cable if Fast Five happens to be on TV), launched Justin Lin to A-list director status, launched the Fast & Furious movies into what is now a multi-billion dollar franchise, and finally showed what he was truly capable of.
There’s a story relayed by “creativity expert” (whatever that means) Sir Ken Robinson about a young girl who was getting in trouble in school because she couldn’t sit still. Her teachers thought she had a learning disability, so her parents took the girl to a doctor. The doctor spoke to the girl, attempting to discover the root of her problem. After a while, the doctor excused himself to speak to the girl’s mother, turning on the radio before he left the room. When the doctor reached the girl’s mother, he pointed at the girl, who, now alone with the radio, was dancing. The doctor informed the mother that her child wasn’t sick; she was a dancer.
That child was Dame Gillian Lynne, who would go on to become a legendary dancer and award-winning choreographer.
When Justin Lin first arrived, I felt like he had ruined his first movie with that one spinning shot. It felt like he was showing off, undercutting the emotion of his scene for a visual trick. It felt like he wasn’t paying attention to the work he was supposed to be doing.
I thought he was a hack. But in reality, he was an action director. I thought he was a bad student. But in reality, he was a dancer. And thankfully, the right people saw him dance, and saw his potential, and gave him the opportunity to express himself in the best way he knew how.
We should all be so lucky.
Dan Hamamura is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter.