While revisiting 2002’s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” I noticed again some of myself in its Asian-American high school characters. Their world is very different from mine but in many aspects, these kids are as smart, competitive, and pressured as I was during my high school years. I understand their ennui and suffocation to some degree, though I would not have even dreamed of committing those serious transgressions and misdemeanors at their age.
After the opening scene which gradually reveals something quite alarming, the movie’s first act establishes the mundane daily suburban life of Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), whose phlegmatic narration looks back on how things went very wrong for him and his friends. As your average overachieving Asian-American high school student, Ben has participated in several extracurricular activities to decorate his resumé for college admissions. He busily juggles many other things, besides homework and studying for upcoming exams. During one brief scene, the movie shows him doing a part-time job to earn some money, and he sardonically muses on how easy it is for him to work there.
As a member of the school’s basketball team, Ben is determined to be chosen for the upcoming season, and we see his efforts to hone his athletic skills. When he’s included in the list of the members to play during the upcoming season, he feels some fulfillment, but then finds himself mostly stuck on the bench during the following games. When Daric Loo (Roger Fan), one of his Asian-American schoolmates who is also the editor of the school newspaper, later tells him that he was selected just because of his race instead of his athletic skills, Ben is not so pleased at all; Daric’s subsequent article on him makes him all the more frustrated and exasperated. Getting sympathy and support from others just for being a token Asian team player is the last thing he wants, and that eventually leads to his withdrawal from the team.
Not long after that, Daric approaches Ben with an offer to join his cheat sheet operation, and Ben does not refuse. Joining them are his best friend Virgil Hu (Jason Tobin) and Virgil’s cousin Han Lue (Sung Kang). They’re all eager to go wild behind their supposedly exemplary appearance, and that exciting sense of power and freedom from their growing criminal enterprise is irresistible to them to say the least.
“Better Luck Tomorrow” is often disturbing and uncomfortable in its objective depiction of Ben and his accomplices’ casual amorality. They come to sell not only cheat sheets but also drugs in their high school, and they don’t have any problem with it because they get much more money than before. But they’re still immature boys, as shown from their momentary encounter with real street thugs.
Although it does not explain to us what exactly makes Ben and his friends tick, the screenplay by director/editor Justin Lin and his co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez lets us gather that sense for ourselves little by little via mood and details. These kids do not seem to have any serious trouble at their affluent suburban homes, but are simply bored and suffocated as frequently driven toward academic excellence. Escaping to any college prestigious enough for them still feels like a distant end, even though they’re not far from graduation.
Steadily maintaining its detached attitude, the movie firmly sticks to these kids’ focused viewpoint while seldom looking outside. Their parents are virtually non-existent in the film, and the same thing can be said about most of those adult figures in their school. As long as they seem to be doing well on the surface, nobody particularly interferes with these kids. That’s the main reason why they can get away with many misdeeds of theirs.
As announced to us from the start, the story becomes more disturbing during its eventual third act, where Ben and his accomplices face the devastating consequences of their latest criminal action. During that gut-wrenching moment, cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet’s camera swiftly swirls around the center to accentuate their panic and disorientation. The resulting dramatic impact is palpable, to say the least.
The film continues to hold our attention via its considerable style and verisimilitude, and the overall result is all the more remarkable considering how the production budget was no more than $250,000. Lin and his production team really tried hard to secure that small production budget, and their production could have actually been aborted at one point if it had not been for MC Hammer, who liked Lin’s script enough to hand over $10,000 to Lin without any hesitation. As far as I can see, the movie does not feel old or shabby at all even though it was made almost 20 years ago, and I guess Lin and his crew members used their budget quite efficiently without wasting any of it.
Lin also stuck to his vision to the end, especially in case of the characters and the performers to play them. According to a New York Times interview in February 2016, there was a potential investor willing to provide one million dollars for the production, but Lin said no because that potential investor demanded that white performers should be cast instead of Asian ones. He was right in his decision. The racial background of the main characters in the film is indeed crucial in making its story specific and distinctive, and the movie consequently becomes an interesting slice of Asian-American life, in addition to working well as a cautionary adolescent crime tale.
When it had a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2002, “Better Luck Tomorrow” naturally drew lots of attention. As some of you remember well, it also received the strong public approval of Roger Ebert, who passionately defended the film after one of the audiences asked a rather rude question to the filmmakers during the Q&A after the Sundance screening. Some people like members of that audience thought the film was irresponsible in its negative portrayals of Asian Americans, but, as Ebert shrewdly pointed out, Asian-American filmmakers should be as free as white filmmakers in their choice of story and character. They are surely entitled to do whatever they want without any obligation to represent their people, and Lin simply exerts his artistic freedom here while also boldly confronting and then subverting Asian-American stereotypes.
Although it took more than one year to get eventually released in US theaters, the modest but significant achievement of “Better Luck Tomorrow” boosted the careers of Lin and his main cast members, who have respectively led each own solid acting career since the movie came out. While Perry Shen’s earnest performance holds the center, Jason Tobin, Roger Fan, and Sung Kang embody their characters’ vivid and colorful personalities, and John Cho, who later had another big career boost via “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), and Karin Anna Cheung are also engaging as two other substantial supporting characters in the story.
On the whole, “Better Luck Tomorrow” has held up well, and remains the pinnacle in Lin’s filmmaking career, despite his involvement in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. I will not deny that I was amused and entertained by some of his output in that humongous Hollywood blockbuster series, and I duly recognize that Lin has every right to do whatever he wants. But I cannot help but hope that he will someday make something as impressive as “Better Luck Tomorrow.”