Better Luck Tomorrow

(2003) *** R
101 min. Paramount/MTV Films. Director: Justin Lin. Cast: Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho.

Only on the rarest of occasions have I walked out of a film, but I distinctly recall doing so during Justin Lin's juvenile, unwatchable genre debut (with Quentin Lee), Shopping for Fangs. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to Lin's new film Better Luck Tomorrow. San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann charitably described Shopping for Fangs as "a grab bag of cinematic styles, pilferings and knowing winks," and Better Luck Tomorrow could be fairly described in the same terms. And yet, Better Luck Tomorrow packs a stinging punch. Are Lin's kudos for this teenasian Goodfellas granted only for its unique Asian milieu, or for Lin's craft? Is the film an exploitasian picture (a charge levelled by some offended Asians) or simply a youth-culture provocation? Lin's film has raised these controversial questions at Sundance--where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize--and now in theaters across the nation. The answers are not so easy.

Better Luck Tomorrow tells the story of Ben Manipag (Parry Shen), a star student in a Southern California high school. He can tell you how many grams of fat in the fast-food items he sells, shoots 215 free throws a day and daily studies SAT vocabulary words (which serve as ironic commentary on the action). Bored with his upper-middle-class entitlement, Ben allows his similarly overachieving friend Daric (Roger Fan) to rope him into an ever-escalating life of crime, beginning with a cheating ring and ending with gun-toting assaults. The erratic Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) and his cousin Han (Sung Kang) round out the foursome of disaffected suburbanites. They do what they do not out of need and only rarely out of revenge. In fact, their crimes usually work against their nagging sense of purpose: to secure an Ivy League acceptance, win a girl's heart, and live freely. They are driven instead by an existential boredom, which suggests the fresh-faced hedonism of a Bret Easton Ellis story.

Lin's equally amped-up style and pitch-black humor serve the tale's youthful and sometimes drug-fueled energy. Lin introduces his characters--a la Scorsese--with snapshot freeze-frames and laconic narration. The film seems to move through increasingly disturbing cinematic touchstones: American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused to The Rules of Attraction to the aforementioned Goodfellas. Lin wins, in part, by savvily tapping into culture consciousness. Lin locates the novelty of the familiar story in its arch contrast to the Asian overachiever stereotype (the film's tag line is "Never underestimate an overachiever."); when not participating in the Academic Decathalon--and even that sacred cow is turned into a drinking game--the boys are scamming, getting high, or deflowering with prostitutes.

The acting is rough-edged but surprisingly potent. In the film's best moment, the crew speeds away from a brutal brawl. Bystander Virgil hardly knows whether to laugh or cry from the high of being on top by association. Exhilharated and scared at the prospects of pissing off his dad and jail time, he exclaims, "That was better than sex!...I'm going to juvi!" When the volatile, junior Joe Pesci takes ownership of violence, you know from whence it comes.

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