Better Luck Tomorrow (2003)Rated R for violence, drug use, language and sexuality.
Starring Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan. John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Paramount Pictures and MTV Films. All rights reserved.
Asian Identity Crisis
Wisdom suggests marketing Better Luck Tomorrow in a way that will appeal to two different constituencies -- the Asian-American audience and the non-Asian-American audience. The natural strategy seems to be: although the movie is a fine showcase for Asian-American actors and for a story focusing on high school struggles from an Asian-American perspective, the experiences depicted in the film are essentially universal, particularly to teenagers looking for a place to belong.
I'm here to argue the opposite -- this movie works primarily because it deals with an experience more identifiable to young Asian-Americans (and not-so-young-Asian-Americans, such as myself) than to others. Better Luck Tomorrow shows a group of high-school boys grappling with their identity; they want to be recognized and respected in a certain way -- what teenage boy doesn't? But what makes their experience unique is the pre-set identity they're trying to escape -- that of incredibly smart but relatively emasculated perfectionists.
I've made two personal observations about the young Asian-American (henceforth referred to as "A-A") identity. First, the "default" identity most A-A's have -- the one ingrained from years of strict parental emphasis on always being the best in everything -- is largely considered to be an embarrassing one. This leads directly to my second observation: A-A's cope with this by appropriating or conforming to the cultures of others. Young A-A's can be found living in club culture, racer culture, hip-hop culture, and other cultures considered to be "hip" lifestyles. However, none of them are distinctly Asian.
Better Luck Tomorrow, which takes place in that typical upper-middle class A-A breeding ground known as suburbia, starts with a character, Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), who's quite content in his overachieving ways. Everything he does is motivated by the thought that "it will look good on the college apps" -- until an Asian classmate, Daric Loo (Roger Fan), writes a school newspaper article on how Ben's "earning" a spot on the basketball team reeks of tokenism. Sparked by that germ of self-doubt, Ben and his friends Virgil Hu (Jason J. Tobin) and Han (Sung Kang) join Daric to form a little gang that prides itself on running cheat-sheet scams (just because they can) while still overachieving in school. They later flirt with more traditional trademarks of gangster life -- guns, drugs, and power through intimidation.
Why do they do this? Even they are not sure, and each character seems to get something different out of it. Overachieving bores them because it comes a little too easily; running illegal activities is also pretty easy, but at least it comes with a power rush. But more obviously to the audience, their dabbling in petty scams and crimes comes from an inner dissatisfaction with what, on the surface, appears to be satisfying them -- their original reputations as upstanding (and therefore dorky) scholars. Justin Lin, the director, displays a fascinating balancing act showcasing two personae -- gangster and dork -- battling for control of the gang's identity (witness Virgil's identical pride in both owning a gun and winning a cheap cd-player from a school-sponsored drive). On the one hand, they like being dangerous, fast-living rebels; on the other hand, they still take pride in coming out on top in the Academic Decathalon. Subconsciously, they seem to believe both sides can be reconciled, but reality indicates they cannot. Not being able to comprehend this, the gang members float around displaying their bravado, unaware of how insecure they actually are about themselves.
That insecurity and confusion about who they want to be, what they might be, and who they can't become are confronted head on in the movie's final act, where the boys accept a deal offered to them by the film's paragon of Asian-American well-roundedness -- Steve (John Cho), boyfriend of Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), a classmate whose attention Ben has been vying for. He's rich, cool, hooked up with a pretty girl, and heading to an Ivy League school. He's so perfect he feels trapped by his state, actually desiring to rebel against what he has become -- but he's also become condescending to the other A-A's like Ben and his gang. To them, Steve is a version of an image they are subconsciously trying to obtain -- he has succeeded in being both a perfectionist and self-confident. But instead of being someone they look up to, they dislike him because he takes his situation for granted. A combination of jealousy, resentment, and frustration sets in for the boys; face-to-face with the culmination of their insecurities, events soon spin to a traumatic conclusion.
Being simultaneously proud of and embarrassed by one's scholarly perfectionism is a trait I find particularly identifiable to young, male Asian-Americans. Better Luck Tomorrow draws on this trait for its strength -- without this angle to come from, the film's "search for identity" theme might come across as generic and, therefore, less effective. In this way, it's similar to Fight Club, a movie aimed toward a specific segment of society during a specific time period. Being so specific makes these movies important cultural markers, adding to their overall artistic value.
The comparison to Fight Club is intentional, for Lin's movie feels like a blend of Fight Club and Goodfellas, which may be the movie's biggest weakness. Stylistically, the film seems derivative of these and other "hip gangster" movies. Better Luck Tomorrow features a techno-driven soundtrack very similar to the one used in Fight Club -- in fact, in one tiny moment, a bit of the Fight Club soundtrack is used. Meanwhile, the film also employs the trademark quick editing, voice-overs, freeze-frames, etc. already overused in other gangster movies, as recently as in City of God. These techniques are tried-and-true -- always energetic and captivating when done well, and they're done well here -- but, alas, they're not fresh. It's ironic that a movie about the search for a unique identity can't find one of its own. Perhaps that says even more about the young A-A's frustrating experiences.
To his credit, Lin makes many of Better Luck Tomorrow's fancier moments his own. For instance, in the movie's most deliberately shocking scene, a camera revolves around the subject several times to give the sensation of a situation spiraling out of control -- it's a real punch-in-the-gut. Lin also often uses quick-cutting takes of a repeated action, such as practicing free throws, which have the effect of illustrating how deep-rooted an A-A's perfectionist tendencies are. (In fact, the absence of any parents in the movie seems to be Lin's way of suggesting such behavior is inherent in an A-A, regardless of external reinforcement.) The observation made here is that A-A's can reach out and try to break their unwanted identities, but because those identities are so much a part of them, extreme attempts to escape can be futile and destructive. Again, much like Fight Club, Better Luck Tomorrow emerges as a social satire exaggerated for visceral effect, sometimes to an off-putting degree; it offers no solution to its subjects' dilemma because it feels more worthwhile simply acknowledging and exploring that dilemma in the first place.
©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 25, 2003