Playing the Game

From the director of Better Luck Tomorrow comes...a comedy about Bruce Lee?

Justin Lin hasn't eaten at Hof's Hut since he was 14, but he doesn't have to look at the menu to know what he wants: meatloaf.

"That's the thing I like!" he laughs. "OC—I don't know why—I come here, and . . . meatloaf."

Born in Taiwan, but raised in Buena Park from the age of 8, Lin would often come to Hof's as a special treat after a day of boogie boarding at Huntington Beach. A few things have changed since then. "We were the only Asian-American family. It's crazy—now I go back there and the skating rink is now the Korean church, it's like this influx of Asian-Americans. My mom, I remember around '81, she found an Asian market, and she was so excited. It was two little markets on Bolsa, and now it's Little Saigon. Just seeing the explosion through the years is unbelievable."

Justin Lin on his Game. Photo by Rosanna Wong.
Justin Lin on his Game. Photo by Rosanna Wong.

Lin put himself and the OC Asian community on the pop-cultural radar with his solo feature directorial debut Better Luck Tomorrow (he had previously co-directed Shopping for Fangs with Quentin Lee), a gritty tale of Asian-American high school honor students who murder a classmate. Funded with massive credit card bills—and a surprise investment from MC Hammer, whom Lin had met casually at an electronics convention in Las Vegas—the film was picked up by MTV, and opened all kinds of doors for Lin. He then made the James Franco vehicle Annapolis, and the third TheFast and the Furious film, Tokyo Drift, which so impressed the franchise's original star Vin Diesel and the suits at Universal that it was recently announced they'll all be working together again on part four, due out in the summer of 2009. Diesel had seemed to be done with the series, but was persuaded by Lin to make a cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift after seeing some of the action sequences. Universal promptly cut a series of TV spots edited to make it appear that Diesel was the movie's star, rather than its actual lead, Lucas Black. "When the TV spots came out, I was like, 'Oh, come on!'" Lin recalls. "But that's the nature of the beast."

Marketing was more detrimental to Annapolis, a boxing movie originally entitled The Brigade that was misrepresented as a war movie, and was savaged by critics, some of whom may have felt misled. "It's a Disney sports movie, so you kind of know where it's going. I went in there with Nina Jacobson, the head of the studio at the time, and I [told her] I'm politically very much on the left, but I feel like I can make a movie in the academy that's more about finding yourself rather than flag-waving, And we did it—and then the marketing guys took over, and Michael Eisner said 'I need a name that people recognize.' And they changed it to Annapolis, and if you look at the trailer, there's flags waving, and ships blowing up, which isn't in the movie. It came out, and everyone's like, 'How dare they, Iraq war, doing that,' which was exactly what I didn't want to do! I was being thrashed for being a pro-American flag-waver. Then I had a fight with the U.S. Navy—they were giving us script notes. There's a line about a 'Puerto Rican shower,' and they said 'There's no racism in Annapolis.' I was on their campus for two hours and someone called me a chink! How can they tell me there's no racism?"

Regardless of the film's reception, it was a success on a personal level. Lin's parents, who managed a fish-and-chips restaurant for 26 years that closed only on Thanksgiving, came to the set to visit, prompting their son to realize that he now had the means to make their life a lot easier. "I was shooting Annapolis in Philly, and they were visiting. They were hanging out at my place, and I looked at them and I got really emotional. I saw sunlight hit their skin, and for 26 years, either I saw them and they're working in the restaurant, or at home at night—I had never seen sunlight on their skin. I went, 'Fuck, man, I gotta retire them!' So it was good that Fast and Furious came along."

With his parents taken care of, and rent no longer a worry for the first time in his life, Lin's new film, Finishing the Game, is a long-simmering passion project that, while not as obviously commercial as his studio films, is his best work since Better Luck Tomorrow. It's also his first comedy, a mockumentary supposedly unearthed from the '70s (deliberately shot on old rental cameras for that aged effect) about the completion of Bruce Lee's final film Game of Death, completed with rather obvious body doubles when Lee died after only 40 minutes of footage had been shot. Lin's film is a satirical, speculative look at the casting process for Lee's body doubles, who include the likes of Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), a martial arts star who always uses stunt doubles for himself; Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett), a white guy who insists he's half-Chinese and overplays the racial oppression card for all it's worth; Eli (Leonardo Nam), a New Zealander who's a dead ringer for Bruce, but feels the part is beneath him; and Raja Moore (Mousa Kraish), a doctor who only went to medical school to honor his mother's wishes, and now that she's dead is switching back to being an actor. MC Hammer, James Franco and George Takei make appearances too; Takei was recruited when Lin saw a photo of the actor wearing a Tokyo Drift T-shirt.

Finishing the Game draws on experiences from both childhood and Lin's recent career moves, he says. "When I was 10 years old, we had no concept of what a body double was, and we were totally confused. So I was always very intrigued how that guy got the job. I thought it'd be fun to try a movie like this, but with the theme of denial, which seems to be so prevalent in our society—especially in the film industry."

Perhaps not surprisingly, when he pitched the idea to the big studios, they wanted to make it into a kung-fu movie.

"Kung-Fu Hustle came up 25 times. And if that's the movie I wanted to make, then I would have taken that route. But I wanted to do it in an even more esoteric way."

FINISHING THE GAME OPENS FRIDAY AT SOUTH COAST VILLAGE IN SANTA ANA.

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