Chin Han gives his take on the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy and the real key to fixing minority representation in film.
A reboot of The Matrix is on the horizon, and the long-awaited Blade Runner 2049 is fast approaching. But before those hotly anticipated sci-fi classics arrive, we’ll be treated to a revival of another landmark of the genre with the return and reimagining of Ghost in the Shell. The eminently popular, widely influential original manga, movies, and TV series now gets the live-action treatment with director Rupert Sanders and star Scarlett Johansson bringing the property to wide, western audiences.
Han also talks about growing up with the original Ghost in the Shell, meeting fandom’s lofty expectations, Asian cinema representation, the movie’s “bone-crunching” action sequences, and more. Ghost in the Shell hits theaters this Friday, 31 March.
Millions of fans are very excited to watch this movie and for new fans to experience the story for the first time. What was your familiarity with the original?
I grew up with comics. Whether it be from the East or the West, I devoured them. I loved Frank Miller’s stuff, I loved Alan Moore’s stuff, I loved [Katsuhiro] Otomo’s stuff, with Akira, and [Masamune] Shirow’s with Ghost in the Shell. I’m very familiar with the manga, and in the ‘90s that obviously progressed into a love for the movies. The movies are so different from the manga. They took animation to a new level, and as a young person, I was ready for that as well. It was transgressive, it was contemplative -- all of the issues a young person raises when growing up, searching for his own identity. The movie resonated a lot with me. So it comes to pass that, more than a year ago, [I’m cast in Ghost in the Shell]. It’s a dream role.
What's the process like when you’re adapting something that you’re such a fan of? Do you try to separate it from your fandom, or do you try to draw from it?
Both. You have to go back to the source material, ultimately. And there is so much to look at in the canon of Ghost in the Shell. Does Ghost in the Shell belong to Shirow? Yes -- he’s the creator. But I think people will argue that Kenji Kamiyama’s Stand Alone Complex, or [Mamoru] Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell are themselves their own thing.
As an actor, when you want to capture the spirit of the character, and the character exists in all of the iterations slightly differently, you work towards getting a sense of what the creators wanted to do, you know? Then, you work off of that.
However, when you have a property that has so much appeal and has fans that are so passionate about it, the property also takes on a life of its own with the fans, and they have an idea of who this character is. So, it's both. It's getting a sense of what the creator’s intentions were and then what this character has grown to mean to the audience. You take these two things and try to create a character that’s meaningful to somebody. [laughs]
Often, when there's a reboot or reimagining of a popular property, I think fans are too strict with what they expect from new iterations. It’s almost like they go in with a checklist of things that must happen for the movie to be considered a success. But I think fans of Ghost in the Shell may be different because there have been these well-received iterations of the story already. Do you think fans will be receptive to any changes you guys have made to the story?
I hope so. The producers, Rupert, and the actors, when we got to New Zealand, we weren’t only asked to look at the manga. We were provided DVDs of Stand Alone Complex and the movie as well, so the idea was to capture elements of all of them. Fans will love spotting easter eggs throughout the movie -- some stuff from Stand Alone Complex, some stuff from the manga. That will be the fun part for fans. It's impossible to go in with a “checklist” and try to list of things you like from the original movie alone, or things you like from the TV series alone. It’s everywhere. The world of Ghost in the Shell is everywhere in this live-action adaptation.
Your character is different in each adaptation. What can we expect in the movie?
I think the key to the character is his humanness. You can talk about the mullet, you can talk about the mateba revolver. But there’s no escaping his humanness. I think the aspect of him being a family man and having a wife and a daughter was very big for me to keep at the heart of the character.
Those conversations were had frequently with Rupert and with Pilou [Asbæk], who plays Batou. That always comes to play, because when we’re investigating cases of terrorism or cyber terrorism, Han has to function differently, because he’s not cybernetically enhanced like the rest. They are so big and powerful and strong, whereas he has to operate smarter to preserve his life, basically. That makes him move differently and figure out cases differently.
I think the remarkable thing about Ghost in the Shell is that, despite its age, it’s still strikingly fresh and relevant and exciting. Are you excited to bring this story to new audiences to ponder its relevance in today’s political and technological climate?
When Ghost in the Shell was first made, it was so prescient. It was sci-fi. Now, it isn’t. It’s kind of like a documentary in a way. Everything that Shirow was questioning and thinking about in the ‘80s is almost reality now, short of implanting ourselves with things and being cybernetically enhanced, which I understand is happening as well. People are putting chips in themselves too, right? The technology is integrated with life in such an extensive manner that the Ghost in the Shell time is upon us.
I think, in that sense, it's relevant and addresses a lot of fears as to what happens when we become overly reliant on these things, you know? How does it then define us, and who are we, really? These questions are really raised in the field of social media. Are we our Facebook profiles, are we our instagram pictures, or are we something else altogether? Does social media define us, or are we in the driver’s seat? I think the movie is relevant for different reasons now than it was back then.
What is it like for you to come to the material now as opposed to when you were growing up? Has your perspective on the story evolved?
When I was watching it as a teenager, I think it was more an act of rebellion. Any teenager would feel like they were reading something transgressive when they were reading the manga. People forget that the manga is very adult. At that moment, it felt like I was doing something cool. Obviously, the artwork was amazing and it was a world we’d never seen before. It had its fair share of sexuality and violence as well. So that was what it meant to me at that point.
As I’ve gotten older, the search for identity has become so crucial in modern society. Air travel has become so common. Borders are... porous -- and I don’t mean legally -- I mean just [literally] arriving in places, and the internet is also a big tool for dissemination of information. When you get all of this happening, it’s harder to define yourself by nationality, race, or even gender, because we’re all sharing one big pot of information. When you’re sharing one big pot of information, and when you take it one step further in Ghost in the Shell, where are bodies become cyberized.
What then is our identity? Who are we? I ask myself that question all the time.
As an Asian man who feels underrepresented in movies and TV, it’s extra special to see you do well in your career. How does it feel to be a point of inspiration and representation for the Asian community?
First and foremost, I’m glad they like the work. I feel honored to be placed in a position where someone can look at the gifts I’ve had in my career [and be inspired].
The industry’s hard for anybody, really. It doesn’t matter what race or gender you are. You’ll be able to find many unemployed actors, you know? I’ve been gifted a wonderful career, and to now be able to find myself in a place where someone can look at the course I’ve charted and say, “I can do that,” or “I can do even better!” is a privileged position to be in. That then leads me to make sure that, whatever we do, it will take us to the place where we want to go in terms of representation and inclusion.
Having said that, I think actors alone can’t [make change]. We need representation in directors and producers and DPs as well. The best way to tell your story is with people who live your story. You’re going to see that in movies like Fences, you’re going to see that in movies like Moonlight. That is my hope, that we will see more representation in those fields of filmmaking.
Acting is just a bunch of actors trying to get roles. We’re all trying to get a piece of the pie. But if we can have more Asian, African-American, and Hispanic filmmakers and writers, the pie becomes bigger. I think the bigger pie is ultimately the goal.
Chin Han in Ghost In The Shell. Photo: Paramount Pictures
You mentioned Akira, which is a uniquely Japanese story. Criticisms of the new Ghost in the Shell have revolved around that concept. What is your view of Ghost in the Shell as a story about humanity and the world, or being more uniquely Japanese?
I think it depends on the context, always. And it depends on the source material. Sci-fi is a genre that lends itself particularly to reinvention, more than any other genre. A movie like Brooklyn, for example, is very specific. But I think sci-fi gives us the latitude to explore more ways of reinventing or reimagining the context and characters along gender or even racial lines.
The thing is, adaptation is part and parcel of the evolution of a particular piece of work. Any good piece of art is popular by virtue of how universal it is. That’s the only way to appeal to a big group of people, right? If it's very specific, it will have its audience, but it won’t have the popularity. Case in point, Shakespeare, which addresses a lot of universal themes which are relevant today, which is why Shakespeare can be adapted by Akira Kurosawa. It’s only natural to see that these works will evolve and adapt.
Now, the discussion that revolves around Ghost in the Shell...All I can say is that Ghost in the Shell will continue to evolve. It will have many more iterations, I can guarantee you that. Within those iterations, I think people will find things people will be happy about and things that will not be consistent with how they feel it should be represented.
In interviews, Rupert has said that he intended to respect the source material’s thought-provoking, contemplative nature, but also infuse the film with enough futuristic action to appeal to wider audiences. Can you talk about what fans can expect from the action scenes?
I always say, come for the action, stay for the philosophy. The action sequences are mind-blowing. They’re just singularly spectacular. Rupert has such a keen eye for this particular aesthetic, which is really post-cyber-punk-retro-futuristic. [laughs] He’s fantastic for that. We hired one of the best stunt coordinators in the industry, Guy Norris, who won the Academy Award for Mad Max: Fury Road. I think one of the things about Mad Max: Fury Road was that people loved that there were real stunts, and that’s what we’re doing in this movie. We’re doing things for real.
That sequence where she’s running on the walls...you think that’s CGI? That’s not CGI! She’s really running on the walls! I saw the scene when they were shooting it! She’s running on the wall, breaking through the glass. There’s a realism and a grittiness to it, and it’s bone-crunching action. I hope audiences will love it.