24 Jan FILMMAKER FEATURE: SUNG KANG OF BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
Sung Kang just wants to give up the thug life for more meaningful roles.
Everybody loves an underdog; that’s exactly what San Diego Asian Film Festival alumnus Sung Kang has personified throughout his acting career.
In both his roles as the hard-drinking Han in Justin Lin’s acclaimed BETTER LUCK TOMORROW and the self-destructive Sam in Michael Kang’s newest Sundance Film Festival selection, THE MOTEL, Sung Kang has experienced the labors of what he calls “no-budget” independent films.
“You’re constantly looking for money, whether it is to finish production, for advertising or to get media in on the film,” he said. “A lot of times, it costs actors to be in these films. But no budget means all passion. You need to be able to love and believe in your project.”
Yet despite their budgetary setbacks, both films made it to the coveted Sundance lineup – BETTER LUCK TOMORROW in 2002 and THE MOTEL in 2005.
I think we all have a sense of our culture, but are we really accepted and a part of the American fabric? Justin Lin really took a chance and a huge risk in making this movie because he felt that it was an unfamiliar voice that should be heard. He allowed Asian American actors such as myself the great opportunity to play characters that reflected reality in story and culture.
BETTER LUCK TOMORROW heralded a new age of Asian American cinema, far from Sung’s early career days of playing Yakuza and Asian hit men. Lin’s film finally gave Sung the opportunity to parallel the Asian American audience’s sense of cultural identity with his own.
“I think we all have a sense of our culture, but are we really accepted and a part of the American fabric?” asked Sung. “Justin Lin really took a chance and a huge risk in making this movie because he felt that it was an unfamiliar voice that should be heard. He allowed Asian American actors such as myself the great opportunity to play characters that reflected reality in story and culture.”
For the role of Han, Sung invoked the legacy of classic bad boy characters and clung to an old acting adage: “Less is more.”
“Han didn’t have a lot of dialogue, so it was about trying to keep it very visual,” he said. “I had to keep a lot of angst in the eyes. I was trying to bring a fresh original side to the character with the amount of dialogue provided.”
I had a lot of problems with taking those parts, because I was asking myself ‘What did I learn out of these roles?’ But this year, I said to myself, maybe you need to start rethinking politicizing your career. My friends told me you need to keep working, and take risks within that work. I’m an American guy. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes. But you have to pay the bills also.
After the “addiction”, as he fondly referred to it, of Better Luck Tomorrow was over, Sung entered hard times of withdrawal. Acquainted with the joy of playing three-dimensional characters, Sung searched for more roles of the same stature.
He found the exact opposite in parts for CBS’ television dramas, Cold Case and Without a Trace, where he played characters with the common Hollywood baggage of ethnic stereotypes.
“I had a lot of problems with taking those parts, because I was asking myself ‘What did I learn out of these roles?’ But this year, I said to myself, maybe you need to start rethinking politicizing your career,” he said. “My friends told me you need to keep working, and take risks within that work. I’m an American guy. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes. But you have to pay the bills also.”
Even without full characters, Sung enveloped his talent around his work, challenging himself to make the flat roles more authentic and whole.
“I wanted to still challenge myself, try to give it a new flavor,” he said. “I started really embracing these Asian roles just as a Caucasian actor would try do with an Australian role. I tried to fine tune things to get the accent and dialect just right.”
In a way, the blessing of BETTER LUCK TOMORROW had become Sung’s curse; It had spoiled him with an actual full-blown character.
“I was concerned after BETTER LUCK TOMORROW,” he said. “I was addicted to being a part of the storyline, and being in a film not for an Asian reason and not written in a one-dimensional way.”
Sung’s move from resonant acting to secondary caricatures was only a hiatus and made him all the more hungry to play a character with depth.
Enter, THE MOTEL.
Michael Kang’s debut feature film about a boy struggling to weave through the winding roads of pubescence offered just the character Sung yearned to play. While the role of Sam Kim, the misguided mentor of 13-year-old Ernest Chin, was exactly Sung’s fit, he knew getting the role wouldn’t be easy.
“I had to be in this movie. It wasn’t anything superficial, and reaffirmed that there are scripts that I can sink my teeth into and filmmakers that can challenge me as an actor,” he said. “I just had to be in this movie, so I really had to fight for the role of Sam. But it was worth the fight.”
Even Michael Kang joked about the amount of work he put Sung through in the audition process.
“In most states, they’d probably classify it as harassment, but I likened it more to stalking. Calls at six in the morning. Flying across the country to meet me,” he said. “As far as the actual auditions, I think I put Sung through hell. It was probably more extensive than being on American Idol.”
To fully demonstrate the complexities of Sam, Michael even asked Sung to go on a Burger King diet. The diet was one of many nuances Sung focused on for his acting in the film.
“Sam Kim is not the perfect guy, he’s very flawed,” Sung said. “The diet was an exercise to show that he’s a guy who’s lost all physical and mental control of himself. I had to key into a lot of insecurities because he’s very complex, like an onion with many layers to it. Sam is very interesting, but scary too.”
It was Sung’s own reflection of complexity in his acting that Michael grew to love, which eventually led him to cast Sung in the hard-fought role.
“Sung has an energy that really gave the life to the character of Sam. It was a tricky role to pull off because the character is both charismatic and tragic,” Michael Kang said. “Sung is naturally funny and at the same time, there is a depth in Sung’s eyes that reflects a beautiful sadness.”
Sung is keenly aware of expectations and doesn’t hide enthusiasm for his role in The Motel.
“This is not some movie that is wrapped up in a bowtie for the audiences,” he said. “The movie is about this boy who we can all relate to. He’s at an age where he’s questioning things like why he’s attracted to naked women or why we masturbate. It’s going to stir up a lot of emotions. It’s okay with me if you don’t like the film, as long as it stirs up something.”
Sung’s willingness to provoke the audience is reflected in his open challenge to filmmakers. For any potential roles, he has but one criteria: make them hard.
“Seriously, I just want to be challenged, man,” he said, with the same hint of disgust many grew to love in his portrayal of Han. “I really don’t care if it’s a gay, straight, white, black character, whatever. I just don’t want to be a walking set piece, that’s all. As an actor, I just want to keep being challenged.”
Audiences will be sure to see that happen for Sung. After all, every dog has its day.
Charles was a writer for the San Diego Film Foundation (now known as Pacific Arts Movement).