Better Luck Tomorrow
25 April 2003
Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow comes
packing an enthusiastic MTV ad campaign and loads of hype. This last
is mostly a function of Roger Ebert's loud defense of it at
Sundance, when one audience member suggested that it offered a
"negative" view of Asian Americans. Ebert declared that any film
should be able to be what it wants to be, and not worry about
community reputations or individual judgments.
wants to be a lot of things. It is about Asian American kids living
in Orange County and making plans for college. It's about violence
and excess, about the kind of search for identity that adolescents
perennially assume. It's glib sometimes, and it's a low budget
project. It's also a smart and engaging high school movie with more
on its mind than who's going to the prom. This much is made clear in
the opening scene: Ben (Parry Shen) and his buddy Virgil (Jason J.
Tobin) lie in an Orange County backyard, sunning themselves and
pondering early admissions ("Ivy Leagues love it, gets 'em all
wet"). The conversation is unexceptional, the shot looks down on
them from overhead, their faces shiny with sweat.
And then, a
phone rings. "Not mine," Virg says. Not Ben's either. They look at
one another, startled, as the camera takes other views -- first
through tree branches, on an angle, and then, ground-level, as
they're on their elbows and knees, squirming along the lawn until
they find the spot from which the muffled sound emanates. They dig.
They find it, buried with a hand, worms all over it. "You never
forget the sight of a dead body," says Ben in voiceover. "But then
again, I was experiencing a lot of things for the first time. I
guess it's just part of growing up."
careens, time-lapsing through the neighborhood, pitched roofs, white
exteriors, fences dividing the properties. The frame stops on Ben,
in uniform, working the counter at a fast food joint, Employee of
the Month, the wall plaque says, every month. A white lady twists
her necklace, fretful over what to eat; Ben knows the calories and
fat grams in each item. So helpful, so polite. So nice. The lady
smiles. "It's not as hard as it looks," he says in voiceover. All
you have to do is read the manual. What's important is that it goes
on his application, under "extracurricular activities." Ben works
hard at getting to the next step, out of Orange County, Princeton
maybe. He practices his free throws for the basketball team, keeps
careful notes on his progress, volunteers down at the hospital
(where he translates Spanish between doctors and patients), and, in
order to get a perfect score on his next SATs, he learns vocabulary
words: "They say if you repeat something enough times, it becomes
part of you."
reads the screen under Ben as he lies in bed, reciting. "Marked by
or concerned about precise exact accordance with the details of
codes or conventions."
Ben is just
that, obsessed with doing it everything right, following procedure
and keeping his head down; it's the best way he's figured to survive
high school. He's a good kid, a "model minority" kid. He lusts just
a little after a cheerleader named Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna
Cheung), but she's already taken, claimed by rich, slightly older
Steve (John Cho). When Ben sees that Steve's also "boning some white
chick," he's almost driven to tell Stephanie, but no. Ben's too
honorable, too shy, and too enamored of her to break the news.
"Girls like her," he sighs while the film freezes her face against a
block of lockers, "Make you realize that life's not fair."
To even things
up, perhaps, or because he's bored, or because it's so easy, Ben
cheats: "It started with a pack of baseball cards and then it
snowballed. I guess it just felt good to do things that I couldn't
put on my college application." As long as these activities are
confined to scamming computer warehouses on returns of credit card
purchases or even selling cheat sheets to their average-student
classmates, Ben and his friends coast. "It's easy as f*ck," says
Virgil's cousin, Daric (Roger Fan). Their straight As are their
"passport to freedom" -- as long as they keep up appearances, the
kids can stay out at "study group" until four a.m. "The money was
really good," Ben admits. "But I don't think that's what attracted
me the most."
They have good
reasons to want to stick it to the system. While Ben thinks (or
needs to think) he's on the basketball team because he wants to
play, he admits to Daric that he spends most games on the bench.
Daric sighs. Ben's a token: "It's obvious that the only reason
you're on the team is for cosmetic reasons." It's true, adults are
also scamming, to meet requirements, to make their lives easier or
more exciting. The film underlines adult hypocrisy and lack of
attention by never showing a parent (and the only adult with lines
is a science teacher, played by Beaver Cleaver, also known as Jerry
Mathers). This isn't to say that Ben and his friends exactly miss
any "supervision" that might be offered by adults, but that the film
acknowledges, in its visual economy as well as its plotting, the way
they understand their lives, their restrictions, obligations, and
Ben takes his
accumulating responsibilities seriously -- hamburgers and homework,
stealing and scamming. He observes the toll it's taking as he's
snorting coke, trying to stay awake. "It's literally a fulltime job
to make people believe you're who you're meant to be." That Ben is
trying to figure out those expectations, how to resist or conform to
them, is BLT's broadest, most conventional "statement." But
in its details, its plot structured around an academic decathlon,
its concentrated colors and fisheye lenses, the film is invigorating
and vivid, anything but conventional.
The style goes
to show the kids' sense of pressure and opportunity. Ben's not the
only one who notices how hard it is to find himself. In one brief,
bracing scene, Steve practices batting (Mr. All American Sports),
the camera zooming in and out, then zip-circling him as he observes,
"It's a never ending cycle. When you got everything you want, what's
left? You can't settle for being happy, that's a f*cking trap. You
gotta take life into your own hands, do whatever it takes to break
the cycle. That's what it is, breaking the cycle." That is what it
is, but, as BLT reveals, the cycle is designed to resist
breaking: even when you think you're out, you're in; if you're Ben,
overachieving and banging on the side, you're caught coming or
escalating violence -- they beat down one adversary at a party, take
up guns at another point -- has generated some controversy (this was
one of the questions raised at Sundance). The movie insists that
such acting out is just more performance, a way to counter U.S.
media's Asian male stereotypes (polite and undesiring,
"desexualized" or "feminized"), but not so subversive as Ben and
Virgil first imagine it. More compellingly, the film offers insights
into intra-community class and gender dynamics -- Ben and Steve's
competition for Stephanie layers such tensions, neatly.
Still, and as
much as they consider her as a prize to be won, Stephanie, an
adopted child with her own background and identity questions, has
been making decisions all along. That she hasn't made right ones,
even for herself, makes her like the guys, but also not -- she has a
sense of what's at stake, before Ben does. "You know how you make
decisions that lead to other decisions?" she asks him. "And then you
realize you don't remember why you made those decisions in the first
place?" He nods, breathless. Stephanie, as she must, keeps
Click here to read the interview.
Karin Anna Cheung
Jason J. Tobin
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult