HIS CURRENT BIG-SCREEN outing, as the moon-based Commander Jiang in Independence Day: Resurgence, sees Chin Han desperately battling an alien invasion. Back on Earth, however, the 46-year-old is fighting jetlag, following a whirlwind few months promoting the new Hollywood blockbuster before filming his next movie, Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga franchise, alongside Scarlett Johansson.
Clad in a crisp blue shirt, a remarkably fresh-faced Chin Han (he has dispensed with his family name: Ng) strolls in, right on time, to Los Angeles’ plush Beverly Hills Hotel, where we’ve arranged to meet. He gives little indication that, in the past few weeks, his work has taken him from LA to Hong Kong, Beijing and New Zealand (not in that order).
Home for the Singapore-born actor is “for all intents and purposes here”, he says, referring to LA. “But I have worked on movies that have required me to be on location for extended periods of time. So, strangely enough, I’ve been here since 2007 … but I’ve really lived here half that time.”
It was The Dark Knight (2008) – the comic-book adaptation directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman – that first brought Chin Han to Hollywood and, more importantly, out of a self-imposed eight-year hiatus from acting following a successful TV career in Singapore.
“After I did television, I just felt I didn’t have any more to give to the medium,” he recalls. “And so I went back to the theatre and started directing and producing, and found I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than acting.”
He spent the intervening years working on plays and musicals in Singapore and New York, but made only two appearances on screen: in TV mini-series AlterAsians and the Thom Fitzgerald film, 3 Needles, alongside Lucy Liu and Chloe Sevigny.
A chance phone call from a friend (now his manager) offering to set Chin Han up for a meeting with The Dark Knight’s casting director had him jumping on a plane from Singapore to LA without even knowing what part he was in the running for.
“The whole production was shrouded in secrecy, as is the case with all Christopher Nolan movies, and so I wasn’t quite sure, you know, how good the role was or how significant the character was in the narrative.”
The gamble paid off: he landed a not-insubstantial role in the billion-dollar-grossing flick and, in one scene, found himself being kidnapped from Hong Kong skyscraper One IFC by Batman himself.
“I have my family to thank for that because they were very intuitive, I think, about where I was, creatively,” Chin Han says. “They said do it, jump on that plane and go. Without their encouragement I think that wouldn’t have happened.”
The actor, who grew up bilingual thanks to his English-teacher mother and Putonghua-speaking father, says his parents have always been very supportive of his career choice, although his brother, a lawyer, opted for a comparatively more stable line of work. Chin Han chose to study economics and linguistics at university, although he admits his enrolment in a four-year honours degree was “just a way of prolonging the inevitable”, and he exploited the spare time afforded to him as a student by taking part in numerous theatre productions.
“I was sensible for four years,” he says. “And after that I think they understood it was time for me to do what I wanted to do.”
Not that there would have been much opportunity for his parents to protest, even if they had wanted to: Chin Han landed his first TV series, a Singaporean production, almost immediately after graduating, which made his decision to retire from acting when he was still in his 20s all the more striking.
In retrospect, he believes it made him a better performer. “As a young actor, there’s a lot of hubris. You come in with guns blazing, all kinds of ideas as to how you want to play a role, and you endeavour to convince people of your interpretation or your point of view,” he explains.
His stint behind the camera, however, made him realise acting is “a collaborative effort, really. You’re plugging into someone else’s vision in a way, especially in film, so that frees you up to be more receptive and in that way more creative as well. So I went back with fresh eyes and renewed energy.”
A self-confessed cinephile, Chin Han hopes to return to directing one day. But, compared with acting, where “you get to go home after you’re done”, directing and producing require a greater commitment.
“After you shoot a day’s work, you gotta see rushes and then you have more meetings with the budgets, with your producers, with your designers. It’s never-ending,” he says.
It’s a commitment his current schedule simply won’t permit. In between blockbusters (Chin Han also briefly appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), he has been busy making mini-series such as The Spoils Before Dying, alongside Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, and Netflix show Marco Polo (although he does not appear in the second season, which premiered this month, as his character met his demise in the first). He recently shot indie movie A Different Sun, a Chinese-American co-production about an immigrant Chinese family in Germany.
CHINA’S EMERGENCE BOTH both as a market and partner for Hollywood has been the catalyst for change when it comes to the opportunities afforded to Asian actors in the West. Many films, such as Independence Day: Resurgence, which also stars Hong Kong model and actress Angelababy, as Chin Han’s on-screen niece, now intentionally make narrative and casting choices with Asian audiences in mind. And China is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the American film industry.
“[China] can survive within its own industry, the box office for its domestic products is very substantial,” Chin Han points out. “[But] as China becomes a part of global economics and geopolitics, it is only logical Chinese stories find their way into global narratives, too.”
Consequently, Asian actors are becoming more visible in Hollywood, a place where, even today, racial portrayals can be stereotypical or downright offensive. Recently, Korean-American actress Margaret Cho blasted Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie for employing “yellowface” – casting a white British actress as a male Japanese fashion designer called Huki Muki.
“It certainly creates more opportunities,” Chin Han says of Asia’s growing on-screen presence. “So, for example, Donnie Yen in [the upcoming] Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will reach a market beyond the shores of China.
“Everyone wants to see [films] or read literature that has some semblance of their experience … it makes the stories more accessible and allows for a more rewarding experience. That’s how I feel. That’s why it was so exciting for me to see the characters in movies in the ’80s like Big Trouble in Little China,” he says. “I grew up watching a lot of Chinese movies, too, but Hollywood had a … there’s something about the kind of storytelling in Hollywood movies that is very accessible. So I was drawn to English movies as much as Chinese one when I was growing up.”
He cites Jaws, The Exorcist and Rocky as seminal American films.
“They tap into some kind of shared experience – the underdog, or fear of water – so I was drawn to that stuff. And then seeing Asian characters in there fires up the imagination, or my imagination, as to the possibility of me being part of that, part of those stories.”
And yet Hollywood still seems to have an issue with representation.
“It’s a variety of issues, I think,” Chin Han says. “The easiest answer some people have given is that it’s economics. It’s that ‘these people’ are proven entities, they can open a market. But it’s not just that. It’s also the filmmakers themselves, how expansive their own personal experience is. If they don’t come from a multiracial and culturally diverse environment then that story probably won’t resonate with them.
“I’ve had the good fortune of working with directors like Chris Nolan, Roland Emmerich [on Independence Day: Resurgence] and Steven Soderbergh [on the 2011 film Contagion], who have a natural curiosity about the world in general. If you knew them personally, and if you saw how they got to where they are, their experiences are very wide-ranging. So it’s not difficult for them to place one of the strands of Contagion in Hong Kong, or Thom Fitzgerald having one of his stories take place in Africa. So it’s the filmmaker, it’s the writers, it’s the producers and then, of course, there is the economics … It’s all of it together.”
Chin Han is hopeful that the emergence of a global box office, as opposed to “domestic” and “international” box offices, will engender change.
“I think it will change big blockbuster movies because they are so expensive to produce and they require a wide appeal,” he explains. “It will make sense for them to include people of a particular race or nationality in the movie, if that was a market they wanted to appeal to.”
On that note, I venture to ask Chin Han about a topic we have both been dancing around: Ghost in the Shell, which is slated for release next year and has been heavily criticised for casting Johansson in the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi (her character’s name has been shortened to “The Major” in a futile bid to temper the controversy). It is a role many fans felt should have gone to an Asian actress.
“We have to make the distinction between an adaptation [and] where the actress is pretending to be of another race,” Chin Han counters, citing cinema’s long history of adaptations, from Akira Kurosawa’s re-tellings of Shakespeare to the 2009 Chinese remake of the Coen Brothers’ film Blood Simple. “This is one version of that story and, obviously, it won’t be the last. I would love to see many versions of it, played by many kinds of actors of different races, set in futuristic cities of cultural diversity.
“I feel it’s an adaptation and it is not simply a case of an actor or actress pretending to be Asian. It is not Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon.”
Chin Han sounds so earnest, especially when he begins reeling off the numerous iterations in the Ghost in the Shell back catalogue (“It started as a manga and then it was a seminal movie by Mamoru Oshii, and then that’s had subsequent sequels, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, then they had the TV series … there’s a whole canon of Ghost in the Shell”) that I have to conclude his response is heartfelt.
“I understand people will feel very passionate about it but everyone has taken great pains to honour the source material and at the same time – hopefully – give everyone a version of Ghost in the Shell that is a worthy addition to the canon.”
It isn’t the first time Chin Han has felt the weight of an audience’s expectations while making a movie. Did he feel any trepidation in taking on Independence Day: Resurgence, given how beloved the original was?
“There is the weight of that but, at the same time, I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to share the screen with some of my cinematic heroes from the 90s: Bill Pullman, who charmed everyone with While You Were Sleeping, and Jeff Goldblum, in Jurassic Park,” he says. “And they didn’t disappoint. Bill is just the loveliest guy and Jeff is the funniest person you could possibly meet.”
Immediately after the LA premiere, at the end of last month, Chin Han flew to Beijing – his first trip to the capital – for the Chinese premiere.
“They were very warm to the movie and, obviously, they are very proud of the fact that the Chinese are well represented,” he says. “That we had characters that were integral to the narrative.”
Was Beijing’s censorship of the arts on his mind while he was in the capital?
“China is very new to me, I mean this is my first premiere in China. I don’t feel it the way you probably feel it,” he says, carefully. “Every culture is different in terms of what is taboo and what is acceptable. I grew up in Singapore, where people are very mindful of that. One can see that as restriction or as consideration for a fellow person living within a shared environment. So I don’t, y’know … I think, in growing up that way I don’t feel it in the same way you do.”
But isn’t censorship, ultimately, the antithesis of creativity?
“The creative process is a very interesting process,” he says. “What motivates a particular piece of art, or a particular piece of literature or a particular song? Sometimes it is freedom that motivates it, sometimes it is limitations that motivate it. For example, if I didn’t have money for oil paints or canvas, and I had an impulse to express myself, I would find a way to do it and it would come out as murals or this or that. So I don’t necessarily see limitation as detrimental. It can move and it can inspire in equally dramatic and creative ways as pure freedom.”
It’s an impressive response, all the more so because it has been delivered against a backdrop of Portuguese fans cheering on a Euro 2016 football match in the hotel bar.
If this is Chin Han jetlagged, I find myself thinking, after he heads off – no doubt to have a nap – heaven help the journalist who catches him after a decent night’s sleep.