Better Luck Tomorrow

  • Suburban Angst
  • "The Yellow Shadow"
  • Jerry Mathers!


Directed by Justin Lin "So, are we in the Axis of Evil yet or is it just North Korea?"
White, Black or Asian: It Still Really Sucks Going to High School

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 in Tae-Kwon-Do)

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 career.

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.

The Pitch:
2 American Graffiti
2 Election
4 Better Luck Tomorrow
See It For:
The cast of Better Luck Tomorrow Shocked by the Trailer for Kung-Fu Soccer.