Justin Lin Believes Cultural Labels Can Hurt Careers: ‘I Do Think There Are Restrictions’

Nowadays, when people hear the name Justin Lin, they think big-time Hollywood director with installments in both the “Star Trek” reboot film series and the “Fast & Furious” franchise. But back in 2002, he was just an indie filmmaker with one little-known feature under his belt and not much credit to his name. That all changed with one film, his 2002 Sundance breakout, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which he also edited, co-wrote, and co-produced with the help of Mr. “Can’t Touch This” himself, MC Hammer. The film chronicles a group of young Asians in America who start as overachievers but quickly turn to a life of crime and violence. Though not based on a real story, Lin was influenced by the violence he saw in his 20s, such as the Columbine shootings and more directly the murder of Stuart Tay.

Speaking in a retrospective interview on the film with IGN, Lin said of the film’s success, “It changed my life. What the film did was not only present an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker, but after all these years, it’s protected me. Any time I feel like I might be veering off, I think back to [this] experience. Because it was very pure. I’ve been fortunate. I had no opportunities 23 years ago, but now I’ve been able to try everything. ‘Better Luck Tomorrow’ set the tone today.”

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In reflecting on the themes he was drawn to, Lin said, “When I was growing up in the ‘80s, a lot of it was about assimilation, finding yourself in the assimilation of being American. In doing that, there were a lot of rules that weren’t equal to everybody. I think it creates this schizophrenic way of dealing with life. You see it by suppression and not really dealing with certain things. Things get extreme, and oftentimes violent.”

In retrospect, it may have seemed natural for Lin to draw on his own experiences as a Taiwanese-American for the film, but at the time, it was a huge risk. He knew cultural labels could keep him boxed in and still seems to be very conscious of it.

“Even in articles written about me, the first thing is: ‘Taiwanese-American filmmaker,'” he said to IGN. “I’m a filmmaker who is Taiwanese-American. I know it might seem like the same thing, but when you get the level of labeling that subtle, I do think there are restrictions. I don’t want to be put in these rules that are restrictive. I just want to grow as a human being.”

That growth wasn’t always certain though, as despite finding North American distribution after Sundance, Asian markets weren’t as accepting of the film.

“Asia wouldn’t touch us,” he said. “We were getting feedback from Asian [distributors] saying if they wanted an American film, they needed to be white.”

Thankfully, Lin has been given more and more opportunities and grown into a Hollywood creative whose action is often backed-up by diverse casting on screen and below-the-line. Lin acknowledges that he still seems to be carrying lessons from his time making and releasing “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

“I’ve been fortunate to make big budget movies,” said Lin. “But when I started off, there were no rules. I could only approach everything [I made] as an indie movie.”

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