27 October 2003 | howard.schumann
Shallow and Unconvincing
Made for only $250,000, Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow is a dark comedy about a group of over-achieving Asian-American high-school students in Orange County, California whose boredom and feelings about being outsiders lead to acts of petty crime and ultimately to serious violence. It is a film that challenges assumptions about Asian-Americans as asexual computer nerds, showing that they can be just as shallow and bereft of values as any white-skinned American. Better Luck Tomorrow has been hyped in the Asian community as something imperative to support. As voiced in an "open letter" from actor Parry Shen, who plays the lead role of Ben in the film, "It is not just a movie. What hinges on this release is so much larger than the film itself." While I support the fact that this film is a welcome antidote to the traditional representation of Asian-Americans on film, it must be judged on its merits rather than as a political statement.
The film is narrated by Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), a 30-year old actor playing a 16 year old student. His narration sounds as if he's rehearsing for a high school play, speaking lines like "the morning after I lost my virginity, we won the national championship" and "You never forget the sight of a dead body. But then again, I was experiencing a lot of things for the first time. I guess it's just part of growing up." Ben and his friends Han (Sung Kang), Daric (Roger Fan) and Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) have everything going for them: top grades, near-perfect SAT scores, lots of money, extra-curricular activities, social clubs, and not even a parent in sight to call on them once in a while. "Our straight A's were our alibis, our passports to freedom. As long as we got great grades, out parents didn't care where we were" Ben explains.
Shot in the MTV-style with jump cuts and rock music, the film opens with the discovery of a dead body underneath the lawn of a suburban backyard, then flashes back four months to tell its story. After Daric writes an article about Ben being the token Asian on the basketball team, he invites Ben to join with his group in their questionable adventures. They start by selling "cheat sheets" to students, then to running a credit card scam at a computer store, snorting Cocaine, selling drugs, and ultimately to violence. They seem to love their bad boy image, it's all good clean fun. "It felt good to do things that I couldn't put on my college application," explains Ben. "Besides, it was suburbia -- we had nothing better to do." Other good things to do involve a cliched romantic triangle between Ben, Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), Ben's lab partner, and Steve (John Cho), a rich kid with an attitude that does not probe any depths.
While the movie is a sincere effort by a talented new director, it did not ring true for me. Although a film with an Asian cast (the first since The Joy Luck Club) that avoids ethnic stereotyping was long overdue, I was unconvinced by the one-dimensional performances and felt that the shift in the main character's personality, even accounting for years of suppressed anger, was too abrupt to be believable. To make a coherent statement about the pressure put on Asian teens to excel would have been welcome. Instead, what Better Luck Tomorrow offers is a Quentin Tarantino wannabe, a hopped-up exercise in "cool" with extended shots of brutality and an ending that can politely be called morally dubious. No attempt is made to probe the character's thoughts or feelings either before or after they commit their acts and that funny thing called "conscience" is as far removed from the film's reality as any adult authority figures. The effect, rather than a commendable attempt to resist offering facile explanations, is to glorify the crimes and make them seem acceptable. It is reported that Lin tightened up the editing, added new scenes, and "toned down" the ending because some viewers thought it was "too cynical." I would not liked to have seen the original.