Better Luck Tomorrow
Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung. (2002, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 25, 2003
As it so often is in the hyperreal world of high school academics, it’s not the lazy stoners drifting around the auto-shop classes that you need to worry about: It’s the bored smart kids whose pricey Ray-Bans hide feral eyes and overtaxed intellects. Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow takes a fresh look at an old teenage cliché – those brainiac Asian-American kids who seem to exist only to studiously copy and recopy algorithms and chem texts while mainlining extracurricular activities and messing up the curve for their less academically inspired fellows – and comes off as part mayhem-lite murder mystery and part existential youth-rebellion film that, by the time the final image fades and our semihero and not-quite-heroine tool off into the distance in their BMW, feels forced and oddly dispiriting. This is the future? Well, yeah, probably, at least in sunny Southern California among the first- and second-generation students who can get away with virtually anything as long as they keep those all-important grades up, up, and away. It's an immigrant tale with a dark twist. The young Asian-American students here have integrated themselves so successfully into the popular mainstream that they’ve not only adopted the normal dress codes and modus operandi of their melting pot peers – the hip-hop slang, the insatiable love for American consumerism, the marketing hype, and the constant, low-level drone of hormones run amok – but also the succeed-at-any-cost moral ambiguity that is apparently part and bloody parcel of today’s ever more vertiginous climb to the top of the high school (and later collegiate) heap. They know the importance of a test score and the all-powerful "permanent record," but their moral compasses are erratic and untrustworthy. Parry Shen’s Ben acts as Lin’s scholastic Everyman: He’s handsome, talented, whip-smart, and just geeky enough around the ladies that he strikes a believable high school balance. No matter what your own personal teen experience may have been like, he’s a familiar character both on and off screen, and Lin’s opening scene (a smashingly good bit involving sunshine, cell phones, and something very, very nasty in a suburban back yard) hustles you into his world with the flip insouciance of a teenage come-on. Along with his friends – wannabe hip-hopper Virgil (Tobin), petty crook Han (Kang), wealthy overachiever Daric (Fan), and gorgeous cheerleader Stephanie (Cheung) – Ben walks the borderline between Asian-American archetype and American outlaw. As Better Luck Tomorrow progresses, Ben is initiated into a sort of upper-crust Bad Kids Club, with stolen test answer sheets, drug-dealing, and, finally, murder brought to the helm. Although both Lin and his characters flesh out the predictable path toward destruction from a relatively new perspective, the film still has the inadvertent feel of a bigger-budgeted Afterschool Special. That Lin has managed to spin the old Asian kids cliché on its pointy head at all is notable (and his cast is uniformly excellent, especially Shen and Tobin, who act as a sort of testosterone-charged Asian Abbott and Costello minus the yuks), but ultimately Better Luck Tomorrow feels nearly as hollow and unknowable as its characters’ hearts.