Fifteen years ago, a sophomore film directed by Justin Lin (who later became known for his directorial work on The Fast and The Furious and”Star Trek Beyond“) premiered Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance. On April 29, 2017, the the director’s cut was played onscreen to a sold out opening gala night of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Retrospection and awareness of current events set the buzzing undertone for the rest of festival. Asian American representation has always been the topic of discussion for the festival but recent events have stirred the buzz even louder. The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film festival is a week long festival proving that there is rich pool of talent and they are definitely not waiting for permission to bring their vision to the screen
Everyone has the movie that changed their perspective or echoed their voices. In 2002, I was exposed to Better Luck Tomorrow, and it exposed my raw need for Asian American stories. It also introduced me to diversity in an American film in general. I had never seen so many Asian Americans represent so many facets of the main cast. It was mind-blowing.
Better Luck Tomorrow is a movie that takes that thin bubble of the “model Asian student” and pops it, exposing the inner poison. There was Ben (played by Parry Chen), who was completely focused on getting into college. He was the student in every club, every honors class, and who excelled at Decathlon. He worked hard and set himself high expectations. The trouble begins when a fellow student decides to allow Ben to be a part of an underground operation involving lots of money and power. Ben’s best friend, Virgil (played by Jason Tobin) and Virgil’s cousin, Han (played by Sung Kang) are eager to be involved too. It might have gone pretty smoothly if Ben had not become tangled in the strange dynamic between his crush Stephanie (played by Karin Anna Cheung) and her aloof boyfriend, Steve (played by John Cho).
The story quickly unravels from simple narrative of a student working on his achievements for college applications to a complex mess of drug use, alcoholism, sex, and power. Under the guise of being those model students, these students are power mad from all that they can get away with. Of course, there is a point that must not crossed and they are barreling straight into tragedy. The whole movie is a precarious balance of light hearted moments that are barely masking the danger that is building up around them.
The movie is completely powerful. That veil of “model Asian student” is shredded immediately as the film peels it all back to show them who they really are: A group of teenagers struggling with identity and power. On the surface, this can be seen about a movie of friendship, but the bonds that bind this group are steeped in the need to do something dangerous, exhilarating, and terrifying. It becaomes another kind of addiction for them all, and just as with drugs, the aftermath is really not pretty.
The one part of the movie that I really wanted to explore was Stephanie’s story. There is sense of nervous calm to her character. She is the adopted daughter of a primarily Caucasian family. It is not shown on the film but it is easy to imagine Stephanie working so hard to elevate herself in the eyes of her parents and peers. She is someone who earns her status, her smarts. It is with this context that I can understand why she tears apart the homework that she and Ben were supposed to work on as a team. Her relationship with Steve is a fairly head scratching one. Even though their relationship dynamic is what powers the movie forward, what we see onscreen is a sterile reaction between them. It really reminds me of The Great Gatsby–the characters are aloft and aloof in their world, but the need to be near them is maddening.
To still experience that same type of awe and appreciation fifteen years later just reaffirms how this movie still lives today. The pagers and the goofy fashion of the 90s made us all giggle but the story still gripped that whole theater. There was still no denying that this movie is a legend among Asian American cinema and should be viewed by all. It was a pretty surreal and unforgettable opening night to the festival
Highlights if the Q&A after the movie:
- An audience member pointed out the absolute lack of parents in the movie. Lin replied that the lack of parents just highlights them even more more. It was also to point out that as long as their children maintained great grades, they could do whatever they wanted.
- The movie had a very small number of extras to draw from. In one scene, the main characters are joining in a house party by creeping up on the side. Justin Lin (and helpfully mimed by some of the cast members) described how the same extras seen spilling from the house in the beginning were running through the house and changing clothes to reappear in the backyard. This was all done in one shot.
- The MC Hammer story: In 1998, Justin Lin ran into MC Hammer in Las Vegas. When Lin informed MC Hammer that he was a filmmaker, MC Hammer gave him his number. Fast forward to 2001, Lin ran out of money in post-production, he decided to call MC Hammer. No surprise, MC Hammer could not remember Lin at first, but after talking and sharing his passion, MC Hammer wired the money the next day and saved the project. Hence, MC Hammer is credited in the film.
- Parry Shen ( who played Ben Manibag) remarked how refreshing it was to see Asian American characters right in the forefront of the script and throughout. For once, the actors were able to use their craft and apply it to the movie.
- The version played onscreen was the director’s cut which featured some re-shoots. When an audience member asked about the process of the reshoots, Lin re accounted a Hollywood tale of Word of Mouth magic: when they were acquired by MTV films, Lin remembered that there was a huge battle. MTV was making more than Paramount at the time. During that time, Michael Cole (VP of MTV Films) Troy Poon (Marking Director) loved the film and they just bought Better Luck Tomorrow without permission. The problem was that it was just going to sit in the studios until Patrick Goldstein (LA Times Film Critic) brought the movie to Sherry Lansing’s (Studio Head of Paramount) attention. She saw the movie and offered more money for Lin to do reshoots which he gladly accepted.