Friday, September 3, 2010

Better Luck Tomorrow

Let's talk about squandered potential. It's sort of relevant to today's movie, Better Luck Tomorrow, plot-wise, but it's much more relevant when it comes to that film's director and co-writer Justin Lin. Here's a movie that showcases lots of potential, from a director with a interesting and uniquely Asian American point of view. That's a good point of view! We should see more movies from that point of view.

The film is about a group of kids of Asian descent - mostly Korean from what I can tell - who are all associates in their school. The main character is Ben (Parry Shen) a slightly shy, slightly oblivious, but mostly intelligent young man who, along with aggressive and slightly annoying friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang) are roped into an elaborate test cheating and ultimately drug dealing scheme by Daric (Roger Fan). In the periphery, Ben wants to pick up Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), who happens to be dating the obscenely rich Steve (John Cho). Eventually these plot threads collide violently and the entire thing ends with a bit of superficially happy ambiguity, similar to the look of slight regret right at the end of the Graduate.

In spite of Ben being the main character, focus, and narrator, the real driving focus of the film is Daric, and his obsessive need to be respected and belong. He drives the events, from writing an article about Ben being a "token Asian" on the basketball team to introducing the group to all the schemes. The main group is clearly marginalized within the school system, though this is not always explicit, and Daric does everything he can to get the approval, or at least begrudging respect, of the people around him.

That thread of needing to prove something to the people around them is something common to the characters. They struggle for good grades and Ivy League scholarships to prove their value, either to themselves, their peers, or their parents - which are never seen on screen. They enter into criminal activities to prove that they aren't just the good smart kids, but have a violent streak, an aggressive streak, or to simply get the approval of their peers. Virgil, for example, flashes a gun around constantly in order to seem tougher than he is, though when actual violence appears he cannot handle it.

I won't claim to know the struggles of Asian people in a western society - I'm as white as the driven snow - but of course Lin does, and he makes a film that could only have been made by someone experiencing this kind of life. Lin clearly has a lot to say about growing up, and growing up in the shadow of great expectations and subtle discrimination.

So, naturally, I'm rather disappointed that Lin has abandoned meaningful and interesting films and has become the series director for Fast and the Furious. Much of Better Luck Tomorrow makes me curious about what he's going to do next, but his filmography in subsequent years has been by the book action films and, well, the Fast and the Furious. Maybe that spark of creativity is still there, but I wonder if Lin has been done in by his expectations of himself.

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