Since I was one of those losers in high school that had to
be in all of the clubs and "advanced" classes, one
of the most honest moments in Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine was the interview with South Park co-creator
Matt Stone. Stone was a graduate of Columbine High School,
and his commentary on the suburban-bred pressure of such institutions
was dead-on. "The teachers tell you: If you don't get
into honors math in 9th grade, then you won't get into honors
math in 10th grade. And then you'll graduate and be a total
loser and then you'll be a total loser your whole life. These
kids just need to be told that high school is not the end
of things. The cool kids were the ones who sucked in high
school. The losers went onto bigger things." And that
resonates true with the crowd I ran with. I wasn't totally
ambitious; indeed the only reason I strove to be in those
groups or be in those classes was because that's where my
friends were. But they had a certain doomed sense about them.
And really, age has only confirmed their fates. Example: this
girl I knew in high school "needed" to have the
high GPA and aspirations to be involved with everything that
mattered on a college app only to drop out of the pre-med
program a few years into college and now works at a Tae-Kwon-Do
school in Southwest Missouri. Imagine how much easier her
life would have came if she hadn 't felt like not being in
Calc. wasn't the end of the world. She could have been a triple
black belt by now. (or whatever the hell they have for distinction
This feeling of ambitious hopelessness is the real masterstroke
of Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, a film that has
received a lot of attention because it features an all-Asian
cast. Indeed, the Tomorrow starts out with setting
up little distinctions about the ethnicity of its characters.
We see the suburban neighborhood the characters inhibit in
southern California, but we get no other details. Well, the
one visual distinction we get is a sight of absurd symbolism:
The front of this particular subdivision has an active oil
well. Apparently, this is not uncommon in that part of the
country (and I know this because I saw it with a friend of
mine from that part of the country) and I can hardly believe
that someone like the suburb-obsessed Lynch or Waters hadn't
used it first. The message is that this suburb is so embedded
in American excessiveness that it needs its own fossil fuels.
But instead of getting mired in details, let's discuss Ben
(Parry Shen), a soon-to-be graduated kid who is involved with
every group, takes every advanced class, knows how many grams
of fat a hot dog served at his part-time job, and even volunteers
to translate English for Hispanic patients at a local hospital.
He doesn't do this because it's good, only to get it on his
"apps". It also allows him to cause all sorts of
trouble with his friends: the rough yet sensitive Han (Sung
Kang), the arrogantly smooth Daric (Roger Fan), and the pathetically
troubled Virgil (Jason J. Tobin). Things start out simple
enough: They just try to scam the local Best Buy-alike and
then get move into more complicated things like a cheat-sheet
syndicate that nets some serious cash from the other under-overachievers.
While Ben seems to have a lot going for him, he can never
cut a break. He gets on the JV basketball team but Daric chides
him for being the "benchwarming token Asian". He
also has a major crush on Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), a
cheerleader who dates the very bad Steve (John Cho) who keeps
multiple girlfriends since he attends the local private school.
The fact that he drives a bad-ass BMW bike also helps. Ben
and Stephanie study for biology, audition for the Academic
Bowl team, and he even gets to take her to the Winter Dance.
But there's something about seeing her with Steve that makes
Ben frustrated and aggressive. He turns to drugs (mainly because
he's so busy he has to stay up late) and his friend's crimes
seem to develop a rather nasty undercurrent. In the end, Ben
realizes that there's only so much one can do before high
school drives someone totally off the deep end.
By the halfway mark of Better Luck Tomorrow, it easy
to forget that the film is about a bunch of Asian kids. While
that point is significant, the film touches on deeper films
that resonate beyond this. Tomorrow is a film about
the addictive and sick nature regarding self-motivated drive
of people at this point in their lives. And it's clear that
director Lin knows how to place this in the proper look of
modern film. This is a filmmaker very much in the same vein
as Darren Aranofsky: He speeds up the film, does a lot of
quick cuts, and spins his actors around. But it's not just
music video posturing. He is clear about showing these ambitious
high schoolers as being as messed up as any of Aranofsky's
troubled genuises or addicts. The technicalities are just
an extension of the characters. And the young, largely inexperienced
cast does a bang-up job with the individual frailties. Shen
has to carry to weight of almost every scene and he is able
to smile even when pain has to well up in his eyes. His Ben
is a rather daring stroke and he takes it for all its worth.
There's a great scene in Las Vegas while they're on a debate
trip and Ben has his first sexual experience. He revels in
the moments just to have it blow up in his face by how cheap
it really was. But honestly, the most heartbreaking character
has to go to Virgil. As played by Tobin, the guy is so screwed
up and you know that his story is not going to end on a happy
note. And while the whole piece is tragic, I guess the most
impressive thing about Better Luck Tomorrow is how
restrained it ends up being. I guess all the of the MTV ads
made this look like an Asian version of Heathers so
perhaps I went in expecting the worse. But while the characters
get into crime, the acts seem way to brainy to be that bad.
They sell cheat sheets and take computers from the school.
Hell, the drug use is brought in just so they can get their
homework done. This shows a great deal of measure and sincerity
on the film's part: These things still shock but they never
get out of the character's sphere. High school problems have
a way of flying out of control, but Lin proves to have a steady
hand and a patience that should serve him well for a long
This by no means the first film about high achieving kids
in high school but it may end up being one of the better ones.
Better Luck Tomorrow is one of those really sad, really
funny and really true looks at a time where most of us would
rather forget. But rather than waxing nostalgic or demonizing,
this just ends up as a portrait of a time that was painful
but certainly not without its moments of growth and understanding.
While the end leaves you hanging, there's hope that these
kids take Mr. Stone's advice and realize that high school
is not the end. That they will have better luck tomorrow.
Not getting into honors math in the 10th grade is certainly
not the end of the world, but there is something about Mr.
Lin's film certainly makes it fascinating to revisit.