Chin Han interview: ‘Some stories are so effective and universal that they lend themselves to adaptation’

Hollywood’s first Singaporean star on whitewashing controversies, the growing Asian film market and ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’


Tim Walker
Los Angeles
Monday 27 June 2016 12:23
Chin Han as Commander Jiang in ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’
Chin Han as Commander Jiang in ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’

By the end of next year, China is expected to overtake North America as the world’s biggest movie market, marking the end of Hollywood’s historic dominance of the global film industry. And with just 34 annual release slots allotted to western movies by the Chinese censors, US studios have become increasingly desperate to tailor their output to East Asian audiences.

Some fear that effort stifles filmmakers’ creativity, as if the studios haven’t always been motivated by their bottom line. But it has beneficial effects, too, not least bringing greater diversity to the multiplex, by giving screen time to Asian actors such as Chin Han, the first Singaporean star ever to make a splash in Hollywood.

“There are more opportunities now because international markets are becoming more and more of a consideration, especially for the big-budget films,” agrees Han, who got his Hollywood break in blockbuster Batman sequel The Dark Knight and has subsequently appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Netflix series Marco Polo and now Independence Day: Resurgence.

As a teenager in Singapore, says Han, some of the American films that most resonated with him were those that featured Asian characters, even when they were criticised in the US for racial stereotyping. “It’s always fun to see faces that are either familiar or resemble yours,” he says. “I was fascinated by movies like Big Trouble in Little China growing up because there were so many Asian people in it! The same with Year of the Dragon or The Last Emperor. It was just so great to see so many Asian actors working.”

In Independence Day: Resurgence, which opened this weekend, Han plays Commander Jiang, the man in charge of the Moon base that’s the Earth’s first line of defence against alien invasion. Born in Singapore to a Chinese family, the 46-year-old saw the 1996 original at one of Singapore’s first multiplexes. “It blew me and my friends away,” he says. “Even though it has a lot of American references, it has a universal theme, so we found ourselves rooting for Bill Pullman and Will Smith.”

Already a celebrated actor and director in the Singaporean theatre world, Han was surprised when he got the call to come and read for The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan in 2008. “I jumped on a plane and flew to LA and was incredibly jet-lagged when I did the audition,” he says. The jet-lag may have helped him land the role of Lau, the criminal accountant whom Batman kidnaps in Hong Kong and takes to Gotham to be interrogated.

With his part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Han joined an elite club of actors who have had speaking roles in both the Marvel and DC movie universes. A comic book fan as a boy, he’s also psyched that his next project is the live-action adaptation of the cyberpunk manga classic, Ghost in the Shell, which is currently shooting in Hong Kong.

The film generated accusations of “whitewashing” after Scarlett Johansson was cast as its protagonist, Japanese cyborg cop Major Kusanagi. A petition to replace the star with a Japanese actress such as Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel) or Tao Okamoto (Wolverine) has attracted more than 100,000 signatures. But Han is level-headed about the controversy.

“There are some stories that are so effective and universal that they lend themselves to adaptation. Shakespeare has been adapted by Akira Kurosawa, Dangerous Liaisons has been adapted into a Chinese movie. Blood Simple, the Coen brothers movie, was adapted by Zhang Yimou,” he says, suggesting the futuristic Ghost in the Shell falls into the same category.

“Then again, if we’re talking about Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon – where they’re actually pretending to be Chinese and Japanese respectively – then that is at best misguided and, at worst, offensive. It would be like casting me in a biopic about [black NBA star] Steph Curry.”

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