A lot of people don't like films about racial affairs in America. They're aware of our lack of parity, but don't want to pay $9.50 to feel guilty or angry about it. With the indie comedy Finishing the Game, director Justin Lin makes some powerful statements about racism in Hollywood, yet sends them down easy with a spicy side of '70s kitsch.
Lin, a Chinese-American, was a hot director following his 2002 Sundance breakout, Better Luck Tomorrow. BLT proved America was willing to embrace a film with an all-Asian cast. But before this first success, Lin had a vision for a film based on a fascinating piece of Hollywood folklore.
In 1973, martial arts legend Bruce Lee died suddenly at age 32. He left behind 12 minutes of action footage for a film entitled Game of Death. Studio heads, unfazed by Lee's untimely passing, rushed to finish the film by finding an imitation Bruce Lee. With screenwriter Josh Diamond, Lin crafted a comedic re-imagining of Game of Death 's casting crunch.
Along with the laughs, Lin gives us a window into the representation of Asian-American men in the media and the struggles they still face today.
"Every Asian-American man has been called 'Bruce' or has been taunted by the famous Bruce Lee yell. His image is still powerful for us, but is ... co-opted by those who wish to stereotype and provoke," Lin writes in Finishing the Game's press kit statement. "He's a hero and cliché at the same time."
Lin valued making "a film with three-dimensional Asian-American characters that are empowered, as well as flawed."
In a phone interview, Lin talks about shooting the film in documentary style, with period cameras.
"The interview scenario and the conscious presence of the camera gave our characters the optimum motivation to present themselves in a certain, desired way," he says. "Ultimately, their attempts to do so provide a 'peep-hole' into their worlds of denial."
Each of the film's main characters is so desperate for fame that they jam themselves into the Bruce Lee mold, with hilarious results. Breeze Loo, played by Roger Fan, is the vain peacock of the casting call. He did none of his own martial arts in a string of Bruce Lee knockoffs, yet considers himself a peer of "The Master."
Sung Kang is Cole Kim, the only Korean-American kid from an Alabama backwater. He's a sweet, laid-back hunk, more in love with the idea of acting than the craft itself. His interactions with girlfriend/manager Saraghina (Monique Curnen) add a tender mirth to the film. Dustin Nguyen's Troy Poon, in contrast, is frustrated by Hollywood's typecasting of Asian males as delivery boys. On his short-lived crime drama, he ripped a new one in the "minority sidekick" stereotype with an expertly played tagline: "I'm not doing your laundry."
McCaleb Burnett plays an outrageous wild card in Tarrick Tyler, an Asian-rights activist whose Caucasian appearance causes an uproar. Rounding out the top contenders are Raj (Mousa Kraish), a soft-spoken Indian doctor, and Remy Nguyen (Bernardo Pena), a baby-faced Saigon refugee.
Finishing the Game features many strong performances, subtle and ringing with quirky realism. Meredith Scott Lynn's pushy casting director, Eloise Gazdag, is a particular gem. Her boss, director Ronney Kurtainbaum (Jake Sandvig), is the lame-duck producer's son. His character comes off flat and underdeveloped, but he does provide an adequate contrast to the rest of the film's motley crew.
Lin and several of Finishing the Game's stars have spent much of this year speaking at colleges and community groups, rallying support for Asian-American film. A particular desire is strong roles for Asian-American actors that fall outside of tired stereotypes like the geisha, the ninja and the emasculated servant.
Though Lin tasted big-budget success with Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious III: Tokyo Drift, he sees independent cinema as a tool for creating better opportunities for Asian actors.
Roger Fan is frustrated by Hollywood's unwillingness to cast Asian males as romantic leads: "I feel like this all-American guy, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but I don't look like them. There's not an expectation of a leading guy who would look like me in America."
Sung Kang adds, "Tokyo Drift (in which Kang played the fan favorite Han) was great, but I wonder what kind of character I would have been without Justin," who created the unique role specifically for Kang.
As a Caucasian woman with a Korean-born husband, I'm aware of the subtle prejudices faced by Asian Americans. But the humor in Finishing the Game translates to all races as it pokes fun at America's perceptions of culture and success. It's filled with smart laughs, sexy visuals and nostalgia for an over-the-top era. But don't laugh so hard that you miss the point — assumptions based on race and ethnicity didn't go out with the butterfly collar.
FINISHING THE GAME is currently available on pay per view channels nationwide. Check with your local cable or satellite provider times in your area.