Before the pinks start flying, let's get the snap critique out of the way: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is completely ri-drift-ulous. Start with the deeply tanned, pastel-loving, hella-bleached-blond ganguro girls (now with highly buoyant boob jobs!), proceed to the silly gang-drifting scene down a mountain (why not make it Mt. Fuji?), and fly toward the smirking absurdity of Sonny Chiba playing a deeply tanned, pastel-loving ganguro yakuza boss — this movie throws as much sex and speed in the mix as it can, yet still manages to lag disastrously mid-race.
What is fast-cinating is the fact that The Fast and the Furious (2001) has become a franchise with a record of roping in quality independent directors: 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) dragged out John Singleton, and Tokyo Drift apparently got Asian Amerindie filmmaker Justin Lin to roll over as well. Lin became Asian American film's great yellow hope after some hard-won success with Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), and he's a politic choice. The original Fast and the Furious cast its Asian characters in such a villainous light that certain viewers were blinded by the hypocrisy. After all, the LA street-facing flick was loosely based on a Vibe story by Chinese American writer Ken Li. In that initial installment, the gangs of gearheads broke down along color lines as they prepped for a tourney called "Race Wars."
At the time, I read the demonization of the Asian crew as a sort of hangover from the American vs. Japanese auto industry wars. Everything, however, has been upended these days, as Japanese imports of the cinematic variety are being made over regularly and J-pop culture has steadily filtered into the mainstream. A genre film set in Japan with a determinedly multicultural cast doesn't seem out of the question, if somewhat odd, in that fairly homogenous country (the lead, Southern-accented honky Lucas Black, is joined by African American short stuff Bow Wow, Korean American friend Sung Kang, and South Asian Aussie love interest Nathalie Kelly). Where's the Russian drift monger?
Betraying his indie filmmaking roots, Lin spends so much time developing the characters and detailing the Japanese mise-en-scène that he actually puts a dent in the movie's pacing. And the racial mix seems closer to Better Luck Tomorrow's melting-pot LA than Tokyo, or even Yokohama. But the absolutely weirdest quirk that Lin brings to Tokyo Drift is the fact that he has Better Luck Tomorrow's Sung Kang reprise his role as the honorable teen grifter, Han, in the film. "Tokyo is my Mexico," Han says mysteriously at one point, referring to the Wild West gunfighters who'd run for the border. Han's character bleed, it's implied, might be attributed to a flight from Better Luck's black market of cheat sheets. It's fitting then that Kang strides into his initial frames of Tokyo Drift like Sergio Leone's Man With No Name or Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter. As if we're supposed to know who he is. I loved Better Luck, but I still didn't get it till I checked Internet Movie Database. If only Han had a classier vehicle, one that wasn't built for a quick buck. (Kimberly Chun)