Better Luck Tomorrow
In the opening, Ben (Shen) and best friend Virgil (Tobin) are sunbathing when a cell phone rings - on a body buried in Virgil's backyard. In this unsettling parable, today's youth see money as the only measure of success. Ben and his overachieving Asian-American friends in wealthy Orange County are on a fast track to the Ivy League and lucrative careers, with straight-A's and impressive extracurriculars: Ben plays basketball, is an Academic Decathlete, and helps the food drive. But, he narrates, he has a thriving business selling cheat sheets and drugs, and keeps a cash-filled box in his bedroom. His friends and he are on the path to corporate greed.
The students exhibit wholesome civic-mindedness, are popular, smart, seemingly well-behaved, and ambitious, but are amoral. They know that "straight A's are our passports," and get good grades, so their parents - never seen - assume they're studying, while little by little, they're moving deeply into crime. Dubbed "the Chinese Mafia" at school because of their activities, they don't call themselves that. With Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos, they no longer think of their pre-American heritage; they're just Orange County Americans. But their bland exteriors hide seething resentments, as the boys' crimes progress until it all turns dangerous.
Good ethnic films take race for granted and focus on the story, and Lin takes race as a given. When Ben joins the basketball team, the school paper says he's "the token Asian," and students cheer him, so he quits in disgust. Having beaten the NBA free-throw record, he's not a token.
Ben's crush on cheerleader Stephanie (Cheung), is thwarted by Steve (Cho), a typical older boy with a motorcycle and attitude. Stephanie's last name and Caucasian little brother prove she was adopted, but she rebuffs Ben's question about "real parents" with, "These are my real parents." Cheung is just right with a boy she likes but considers insipid.
Lin's skills on a limited budget makes his film as good as any - meaning cinematographer Patrice Cochet, art director Yoo Han, and others on the crew are very able and resourceful. Lin is uncompromising and doesn't wimp out. His actors live and breathe, and actor Shen adds a watchful, wary undertone to his all-American role. "Better Luck Tomorrow" isn't just thriller, social commentary, comedy, or romance, but all those, in a brilliant film.
Justin Lin, Ernesto M. Foronda, and Fabian Marquez
Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung
Over-achievers, Asian-American college students, stress resp
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