By Lisa Leong
A movie about making a movie, Finishing the Game is Justin Lin's imagining of a real past: the Hollywood scramble to replace Bruce Lee in his unfinished Game of Death. The mockumentary is Lin's much-heralded return to the indie world on his terms, and in Finishing the Game, the director navigates studio and indie projects as deftly as he mashes comedic fiction with tragic reality. The end result -- the end of the game as it were -- is a polyester-clad parody that speaks truth to power about Hollywood's refusal to let Asian Americans play themselves. The issue of racial representation on screen does not scream in the audience's faces, but rather bounces along to the film's funkadelic beat, playing for laughs with subtle subversion.
Finishing the Game chronicles the journey of several hopeful and hapless actors throughout the fumbling auditioning process. The anonymous narrator of the mockumentary narrows down the crowd of yellow jumpsuits to focus on a handful of Bruce Lee wannabes who, as we find out, do not actually want to be Bruce Lee, but are more interested in their own career trajectories. Not all Asian actors want to be Bruce Lee, although all of them have to deal with his shadow.
A leading candidate, Cole Kim (Sung Kang), is an optimist and newbie who unwittingly signs on for a porn flick before coming to the Game of Death auditions. Kang, best known as the strong and silent type from Lin's Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, pulls off Cole's naïveté with earnest likeability. In his interviews with the camera crew, Cole reveals that he and his girlfriend/manager were the only Asian boy and the only Columbian girl in Alabama, and that their outsider experiences forged their relationship. His positive attitude is a strategy to cope with being an outsider trying to break in to the mainstream that is Hollywood. Cole is like many (Asian American) actors who find out that Hollywood is both the creator and destroyer of dreams.
One of Lin's strategies for creating Asian American characters is to draw inspiration from the lives of the actors who play them. In Cole's case, his Alabama childhood borrows from Kang's own experience growing up in the state next door, Georgia. Kang plays Cole as himself on multiple layers: Cole is being himself in the documentary, and Kang is playing something of caricature of himself, an Asian boy from the South, through Cole. The layering and weaving of fiction with reality is what makes Finishing The Game clever.
Cole's foil and idol is Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), a cocky but delusional actor who has based his career on being a Bruce Lee knockoff. Breeze cashes in on America's love for Asian martial arts stars from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, but Breeze is a phony who does not do his own stunts. The irony of the kung fu star who does no kung fu subverts the stereotype that all Asian men know how to karate chop. Fan slathers the character in oily charm, but the character's background earns sympathy and adds dimension. All it takes is a shot of Breeze's parents sitting on a floral couch: turns out they are white, and they adopted an Asian boy to replace their deceased dog. Breeze has been a replacement all his life, and although he is good at it, he is always fulfilling someone else's expectations -- a personal dilemma that resonates. The expectations of the film industry are limited and limiting for Asian actors in the 1970s and, as Lin's critique suggests, still in the present as well.
Lin messes with the audience's expectations by throwing in a white guy playing a half-Chinese activist who insists that "Our people have been oppressed for way too long." Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett) is shown at protests and poetry readings rallying against railroads. He is the only voice of the 1970s Asian American movement in Finishing the Game, and the audience has to resolve his white face with his pro-yellow political message. The effect is that Terrick makes the yellow power message sound silly. Through Terrick, Lin mocks the Asian American activists who protest against a bowling alley named Buddha Bowl, hinting that this is a wasted way to go about change.
"Finally, representation with power!" states overlooked veteran actor Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen) as he prepares to meet with his new talent agents. However Poon's relief is short-lived, when the three Hollywood suits offer him the same Bruce Lee body double role he just walked away from. Poon's unfulfilled desire for "representation" has double meaning: his frustration with his agent, and, more subtly, the lack of powerful Asian American representation on screen. With Poon, Lin again bases the role after the actor playing him. Both Nguyen and Poon had television hits playing cool Asian cops next to a white lead. For Nguyen it was 21 Jump Street and for Poon it was Golden Gate Guns. Poon is a guy with principles; he would rather sell vacuums door to door than act as a body double for Bruce Lee. Opting out is sometimes the only choice for Asian American actors who say no to stereotypical roles. Poon recognizes the difference between getting a role and getting exploited.
Even when Lin veers close to stereotypes, he gives them a side order of unexpected humanity. Raja (Mousa Kraish) is an Indian doctor whose real dream is to combine acting and ninja skills. Kraish plays Raja as more than just the token Indian doctor; he is a scene stealer who baffles everyone around him with his deadpan expression.
Lin's success at subversion comes from his ability to make exaggeration feel real. The studio executive delivers the final statement of Finishing the Game: that he can find a Bruce Lee look-alike in Chinatown in five minutes, "faster than you can say egg foo yung." While outlandish and racist, what else was Hollywood thinking when they decided to churn out Bruce Lee's last movie without him? Lin offers the alternate: Asian Americans with diverse experiences playing themselves in a fake documentary.
Lin's struggle to make Better Luck Tomorrow three years ago and his experience with studio productions Tokyo Drift and Annapolis inform his satire of the Hollywood movie-making machine in Finishing the Game. The then-unknown director turned down an investor who offered to fund Better Luck Tomorrow if he made the characters Caucasian. Keeping the cast all Asian American put Lin in big debt, and the young director must have realized how indifferent Hollywood is to putting Asian Americans on screen. When Tokyo Drift came around, with executives trying to add Asian flavor to the Fast and Furious franchise by setting the third installment in Japan, Lin knew that the studio did not care about Asian American representation. He took the initiative to create a role for Sung Kang, who turned out to be the audience favorite. Beneath the feathered black wigs and aviator sunglasses, Lin's purpose and vision for Finishing the Game was to create new roles, representations, and opportunities for Asian Americans in Hollywood.