Better Luck Tomorrow, the new film by Justin Lin, is the comedic and tragic story of a group of ambitious Asian American high school kids in suburbia who have just one goal: to get into the Ivy League schools. Ben (Parry Shen) is our main character, who, aside from his near-perfect grades and S.A.T. scores, is part of the academic decathlon team, plays on the JV basketball team, does community service and has a part time job.
It all seems so perfect. But Ben’s tunnel vision, this need to succeed, leads to trouble when his equally smart and overachieving friend Daric (Roger Fan) coaxes Ben into making him a cheat sheet for $50.00 cash. This turns into a business, which leads him, along with Daric, and other academically adept friends, Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) and Han (Sung Kang), to far worse businesses such as dealing drugs, and stealing computers to sell on the street.
Whoa. What’s going on here? Where’s our model minority? Where are our scientists? Our martial artists? Let’s just say times-they’re a changing.
I’m not saying Asian Americans are becoming criminals; I’m saying the face of Asian America is more than what the media presents them to be, finally it’s being exhibited. When Better Luck Tomorrow was first screened at Sundance, a man in the audience stood up and angrily, accusatorily, questioned Lin: “How could you, despite your talented cast and great production values, make such a bleak, negative, amoral film? What kind of a portrait is this of Asian Americans? Don’t you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?” On one hand he makes a point. Since there is so little media coverage of Asian Americans, why put even more negative ideas about them out there? Won’t it just propagate more stereotypes. On the other hand, how can previous equally limiting stereotypes be eradicated without bringing forth new ideas about Asian Americans? And it’s not that Better Luck Tomorrow does not employ stereotypes either (i.e. the ambitious and intelligent Asian kid.) It’s just that they are juxtaposed against something completely un-Asian (i.e. criminal activity.) And this, apparently, is wrong.
So what is my point? My point is that Better Luck Tomorrow is a brilliant, provocative, shocking, ground-breaking, and innovative film that uses set stereotypes to pervade others.
Although it is not exactly what one would call positive, I believe it to be an extremely important film, because it does, in fact, let the viewer know one thing: Asian Americans are not as two dimensional as the media makes them out to be.
The movie is playing at the LandmarkShattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and AMC Theaters 1000 in San Francisco. See moviefone.com for details.