Justin Lin’s second film is his first to be distributed in theaters. Unlike other Asian-American films (which are very few and extremely far-between), he draws from his personal experience to give the characters diverse personalities, defining them not by ethnic color but by their attitudes, behaviors and actions. Each character is introduced in a series of still snapshots.
Ben (Parry Shen), the narrator of the story, is the classic overachiever who excels in academics, athletics and work because he has to and not because he wants to. When he is not involved with his gang of friends, he is honing his skills in the upcoming national Academic Decathlon and spending his biology class time with the object of his affection: Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) is the ‘funny guy’ of the group; his behavior is a comedy factor for audiences but he is seriously a temper-throwing juvenile craving for respect. Virgil’s silent-type cousin Han (Sung Kang) provides the muscle for most of their activities, says very little regarding any of them, and shows very little of his inner self. School valedictorian and multi-club president Daric (Roger Fan) is brilliantly suave but underneath conceals a sinister, calculative mastermind. After their formal introduction, the four gradually immerse themselves in criminal activities, each one more dastardly than the other, until a daring proposal offered by a filthy-rich snob sets their wheels spiraling out of control.
There are only a few things one needs to know about Stephanie to get the story going. One, Ben is attracted to her but his overachieving mindset does not extend to romance. Two, her boyfriend Steve is the filthy-rich snob with the daring proposal because he has too much of everything that happiness no longer holds any meaning for him. Three, Stephanie is the only character known to have parents around. Nothing of the male characters’ parents are present at all – whether they are alive or dead, married or divorced, abusive or loving – which reinforces the point that teens, no matter how privileged they may be in wealth, will wander into the road to hell without any parental influence.
As the lives of the four boys gradually spiral out of control, the story gradually spirals out of focus into drugs, vice and violence, all of which are crammed one after another in a short span of screen time. All track of time and sense is lost as their wicked ways are glorified at the expense of their humanity. Lin has stated that the film does not attempt to explain anything. As such, it does not offer any reason how/why they are into peddling drugs and later murder. Nor does it attempt to explore their thoughts or feelings regarding the murder before or after it has been committed. Its purpose seems purely for shock value. Because of that, the momentum comes to a screeching halt after the murder. Yet the film continues for 15 more minutes only to show the characters becoming shallower in depth to the point that they are flattened, i.e. one-dimensional. The only good thing about this extended screen time is it allows Ben to do the one thing he could not do before. But it is unnecessary to show how the other boys are doing when no attempt is made to look into them. (The hospital sequence towards the end is severely undeveloped.)
Overall, the acting is average but the cast cannot be blamed. Because of their ethnic look, these actors have scarce opportunities to get good roles except for being typecast in martial arts flicks (which Jet Li is stuck in for the rest of his career in Hollywood). Shen has the daunting responsibility of carrying the story but his inexperience in front of the camera shows. His eyes show a lack of intensity onscreen. Apparently he does not realize that a camera is capturing him on close-up and he has to show focus at least in his eyes. Tobin plays up his ‘clown’ character with exaggerated and often melodramatic mannerisms. He does not have to maintain eye contact with the camera like Shen does since 1) he plays a supporting role, and 2) his character's immaturity justifies it. The most promising of the cast members is Cheung as the only female attraction and has more natural charisma than all of her male co-stars. With the film being distributed to theaters nationwide, she will get plenty of recognition and offers for *ahem* bigger and better things.
The sad thing regarding Better Luck Tomorrow is that it could be a very long while – two to three years perhaps – before another Asian-American film hits the screens. Whether or not you like this film is not going to affect your taste in the long run (two to three years can make you forget all about it). General perception of moviegoers towards such types of films – and such types of characters – is still condescendingly racist. If it can irk an attendee to accuse Lin for making a film that is “empty and amoral of Asian Americans and Americans” during a Sundance screening, how much more can it do to an audience brainwashed by racial and political correctness. Many Asian films have expressed such “empty and amoral” depictions of Asians – in greater quantities – for decades, yet the predominantly non-Asian (mostly white) population in the United States feels that they must dictate how Asian-Americans should represent themselves in film without ‘dishonoring’ their ethnicity. The hypocrisy of this is that most of these non-Asian (mostly white) people do not have a clue to what the Asian ethnic identity is other than a label for a minority group defined by stereotypes bordering on “odd and undesirable”.
While Better Luck Tomorrow is not a great film, it deserves commendation for its characterization in developing and establishing the characters’ identities without the need to remind the audience who they are ethnically. Speaking as a member of that group (which I am proud to be), it is a long overdue welcome for us to finally have our own voice in American film instead of having to fly halfway across the globe to Hong Kong, Taiwan or China to make ourselves heard. Here is hoping we won’t have to wait too long for another Asian-American film to hit theaters.
(N.B. The ignorant Sundance attendee who tried to enforce a racial double standard is very likely non-Asian and probably white, and could be a closet racist. Asian-Americans in general, most of whom are familiar with explosive guns-and-fists flicks from Hong Kong and other Chinese-populated areas of Asia, would not make such attacks. Because they have seen worse, and therefore know better.)
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