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    Better Luck Tomorrow

    Better luck next time

    Writer-director Justin Lin may someday have a better film in him than "Better Luck Tomorrow," a trashing of the Asian-American model-minority stereotype that devolves into depraved violence as it runs out of dramatic inspiration.


    Better Luck Tomorrow, the directorial debut of Justin Lin, is a much-hyped, contentious movie with a great idea, complex and interesting characters, and a script in need of another few months of revamping. It is, quite frankly, a poor man's "Trainspotting" that explores dark, unsettling themes inadequately and irresponsibly.

    Directed by: Justin Lin.
    Written by: Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez.
    Cast: Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung, Jerry Mathers, Aaron Takahashi, Beverly Sotelo.

    Related links: Official site
    Shown through the eyes of narrator and protagonist Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), the movie traces the lives of a loosely knit group of privileged Asian-American high school honor students in present-day Orange County. The movie begins with the shocking discovery of a dead body underneath the perfectly manicured lawn of a suburban backyard and then backtracks to several months prior to the discovery.

    The film's action is centered around four overachieving, privileged students — Ben, along with Virgil Hu (Jason J. Tobin), Han (Sung Kang), and Daric (Roger Fan). They are shown slowly evolving into a tough, gun-wielding gang throughout the several months prior to the body's discovery. While not selling exam cheat sheets, dealing drugs, and stealing computers, they manage to maintain their statuses as the school's academic leaders.

    Better Luck Tomorrow  
    The four quickly become enraptured with their crimes, intoxicated with getting away with the forbidden and with successfully navigating between and commandeering two worlds. To reinforce this point, they are shown strutting down the halls of the school like something out of "Reservoir Dogs," sipping beer at parties with the wind blowing through their hair, snorting cocaine, having sex with prostitutes, and smoking cigarettes with their faces scrunched up like Clint Eastwood in a western movie. The background music pumps loudly, the cinematic style is fast and edgy, and Ben's voiceovers explaining his gang's popularity lure you into the excitement. The one adult present in the film is a science teacher who lectures on amoebas. He is played by "the Beaver" Jerry Mathers and, as such, is a complete joke. As Ben claims, "Our straight A's were our passport to freedom. As long as we got great grades, out parents didn't care where we were."

    Along with their double lives, the movie shows Ben's fledgling quasi-romance with his cheerleader lab partner Stephanie Vandergosh, played by newcomer Karin Anna Cheung. Stephanie's morality is never fully defined — you almost expect her to be the sweet, moral voice of the film pulling Ben back from his descent into criminality. But in a minor shoplifting scene, she is shown to be vaguely on the same ethical plane as that of Ben and his gang. Stephanie's adulterous, megalomaniacal boyfriend Steve (John Cho) complicates the romance by constantly reminding and rubbing Ben's face in his conquest of Stephanie — he asks Ben to take Stephanie to the school dance because it's just not "his thing," and sarcastically cries to Ben that Stephanie is "the one" and will take Ben's advice to treat her better.

    The problem with the film is that the characters go from a protracted and sometimes boring period of increasingly serious experimentation in criminality to sudden sociopathy in the blink of an eye, leaving the film imbalanced and the ending artificial. There are long voiced-over explanations of their crimes, slow steady shots of brutality, "GoodFellas"-esque enjoyment of drugs, sex, and money. It's actually very slow at some points — I started wondering what I was going to have for dinner during some of the drug scenes.

      Better Luck Tomorrow
    And then the movie abruptly ends with a heinous homicide for which the characters act remorseless, as if drug dealing and theft are the gateway crimes into murder. Don't get me wrong — it's one thing to indulge in petty criminal behavior as a teenager; sex, drugs, and theft may be par for the contemporary adolescent course. But the characters are too rich and complex for Lin not to show some semblance of their internal struggles, tensions, or psychological fallouts from the sudden and extreme escalation in brutality of their crimes. There are hints of it — facial gestures, one grandiose act that's not fully explored — but they seem artificial and tacked on. In the end, I was left feeling upset by how cool the characters are presented and unsettled at how socially irresponsible the filmmaker is in glorifying teenage homicide.

    What's more interesting than any of the script's flaws, though, is how much debate this movie is sparking over its negative representation of Asian-Americans and its indifferent, unapologetic depiction of crime.

    Some question why Lin chose to present Asian-Americans in such an unflattering light. Since Asian-Americans are so underrepresented in entertainment media, so the argument goes, why then choose to showcase a group of Asian-Americans as amoral criminals? Others, though, take umbrage at the implication that minority filmmakers should be responsible for the filmic representation of their ethnicities — regardless of whether the representations are positive or negative. In fact, critic Roger Ebert defended the film passionately on precisely this issue at the Sundance Film Festival. His defense engendered such interest and buzz that the film was picked up as an acquisition by MTV Films and distributed by Paramount Pictures.

    Regarding the film's glorification of crime, some, including me, find it to be disturbing apart from of the characters' ethnicity. Others herald the film as the triumphant debut of a talented filmmaker whose kinetic style and unique perspective are similar to that of Quentin Tarantino.

    I suggest not bothering to see "Better Luck Tomorrow." It is worthwhile to see inasmuch as it's always fun to be able to take part in a current debate and support new intelligent directors and actors. But read a few articles and see Lin's next movie instead. The story itself needs some more work, it's upsetting and boring at times to watch, and, more importantly, why become complicit in the glorified depiction of teenage homicide by paying money to see it?

    APRIL 11, 2003

    Reader comments on Better Luck Tomorrow:

  • free me   from Niki Yan, Apr 30, 2003
  • thought-provoking   from Amanda Shen, Jun 9, 2003
  • Disappointing   from jj, Jun 26, 2003
  • A travesty of social perspective   from Julian Gil-Chang, Oct 19, 2003
  • The trouble with BLT   from ethan, Mar 4, 2004
  • Re: A travesty of social perspective   from justin, Mar 10, 2005
  • [no subject]   from , Dec 5, 2003
  • I loved BLT ,It was awesome.   from Erin, Dec 24, 2003
  • What About Today.   from Dianne Song, Jan 4, 2004
  • Better Luck Tomorrow?   from Xavier, Dec 30, 2003
  • the critic doesnt kno wut he's talkin about   from jason lee, Jul 21, 2004
  • ITS THE BEST   from souL, Jan 13, 2004
  • A brilliant piece of cinematography.   from Viktor, Jan 18, 2004
  • Great movie   from Baker, May 17, 2004
  • John Cho   from , Jul 29, 2004
  • john cho   from lily, Aug 22, 2004
  • Better luck tommorrow   from J Jay, Dec 3, 2004
  • true meaning   from melissa, Dec 15, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Unknown, Jan 6, 2005
  • BLT please   from Ham, Jan 6, 2005
  • John Cho   from Joanna, Jan 7, 2005
  • better luck tomorrow   from justin, Mar 10, 2005

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