There are many, many things to love about Furious 7, the latest, biggest, and most outrageous installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. For instance: There is automotive skydiving, a combination of words that's delightful to just say, let alone watch on screen. Vin Diesel and Jason Statham have a duel with goddamn wrenches and tire irons, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson breaks out his signature finishing move from his wrestling days, and a car gets jumped between skyscrapers — twice!
But there's one thing that Furious 7 is sorely lacking, and that's the presence of the franchise's greatest character — not Dominic Toretto, despite all of Vin Diesel's gravelly gravitas, and not Brian O'Conner, though the movie makes for a touching send-off for the late Paul Walker. I'm talking about Han Seoul-Oh, played by Sung Kang.
Han is the tragic hero and the embodiment of laconic cool in a series that's all about being over-the-top, the stealth Asian lead that Justin Lin inserted into the series when he took over directing in the franchise's third installment — The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift — forever shifting its balance from one about white guys who are friends with characters of color to one about characters of color and the white guys who hang out with them.
Han saunters into the series as the guy who casually tosses the keys to his beautiful car to an arrogant American stranger and says, "What? I wanna see
what the kid's got." And when that kid wrecks that car, spectacularly and humiliatingly, he takes him in and teaches him how to drift, not because his character only exists to pass along knowledge ("There's no 'wax on, wax off' with drifting," he says) but because he wants to needle DK (Brian Tee), the teenager playing gangster who he needs for business but can't stand. He's playing a deeper game than the dim-bulb protagonist ever really understands.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Always eating — he and Brad Pitt's Ocean's trilogy character are spiritual siblings of the stomach — and observing the action from the side while biding his time and carefully choosing his words, Han's the worldly counterbalance to the cocky posturing of most of the other male characters in the series. And in a mainstream movie world that's desexed Asian men on screen, he's also, quietly, the franchise's most successful ladies' man, picking up women without needing to say a word in a delirious donut sequence in Tokyo Drift. It's not the increasingly crazy action that finally gets under his skin, it's a girl — Gisele (Gal Gadot), who sweeps him off his feet with her precision driving proficiency and ability to secure a baddie's palm print on her bikini bottom.
Han dies in Tokyo Drift, and the series contorts itself in time in order to bring him back by having its fourth, fifth, and sixth movies take place before its third. His death, which, unlike Letty's (Michelle Rodriguez), seems to be permanent, gave his story arc a sad grandeur. Han's fate was set, and was constantly lurking at his horizon, Tokyo his ultimate destination even as the movies built him up as an essential part of the family.
Dom and Brian both have their partners, but Han became the series' third and most charming romantic lead, so starry-eyed over his ex-Mossad love that he had to fend off ribbing from Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in Furious 6. The two were Fast and Furious's sexiest and most interesting couple, united in mutual appreciation of each other's badassery. The scene of them speeding down the autobahn in mid-embrace at the end of Fast Five is one of the series' most lushly escapist images, even if it's overshadowed by doom.
The name "Han Seoul-Oh" is a nod to Harrison Ford's Star Wars character, the streetwise guy who walks away with all the best lines when you're supposed to be paying attention to the hero. But Lin has also pointed out it's an alias, one that allows for the character to be a continuation of the chain-smoking bad boy, also named Han, that Kang played in Lin's breakout Better Luck Tomorrow.
The 2002 high-school crime drama launched Lin's career as well as that of many of the actors in its cast, and provided a sharp-edged rebuttal to the typical depictions of Asian-Americans on screen. Han's presence in the Fast and Furious franchise wasn't just a way for Lin to connect his early indie to the behemoth blockbuster universe he built out. Han is proof that Lin was able to create an irresistible character that defied stereotypes and then figured out a way to allow him to be larger than life on the biggest canvas Hollywood's had to offer.