Too Cool for School

Better Luck Tomorrow Brings Welcome Complexity to Asian America

With this film, it’s tempting, oh-so-tempting, to make the expected references to classic rock songs: “The Kids Are Alright.” “Teenage Wasteland.” “Another Brick in the Wall.”

But that’s not the world that spawned the kids of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow . Set in the upper-middle class gated community suburbs of Orange County, the film draws from the best of the teen and (urban) gangster movie genres to offer something fresh: an edgy, well-made, even disturbing satire that’s equally Asian American and mainstream.

“Flip it and reverse it”
On the teen front, one central and classic question the movie raises is: “Who am I?” On the gangster tip, it asks: “How far will I go to belong…and still get what I want?” In the interest of flipping the Asian-as-model-minority script, larger questions lurk in the background: what price privilege? What’s with the physical absence and moral or emotional vacancy of adults? Is blind, ambitious pursuit of the American dream—the Ivy League degree, the hot cheerleader next door, piles of cash and all that can buy—worth the potential loss of soul?

BLT tells the tale of six honor students who use their “good grades as a passport to freedom.” Steeped in consumer culture and enamored of the pull of thug life, they get their thrills by indulging in increasingly dangerous extracurricular activities.

“Don’t hate the playa, hate the game”
In a push to fill seats and maximize audience, BLT has benefited thus far from a guerrilla marketing campaign by word-of-mouth and e-mails from the director and the cast. Parry Shen, who plays the lead Ben, has noted the many “firsts” that the film represents.

One could view BLT as the snarky, cynical, alienated little brother of a companion piece to
Joy Luck Club
. It has been ten years since Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling debut novel made it to the big screen. But this isn’t a race film in the same way at all: no martial arts chop-socky, no F.O.B. (“fresh off the boat”) accents, no flashbacks to the exotic motherland, no banquets in which all intergenerational hurt is healed at the dining table, and no drama about ethnic authenticity or assimilating into the mainstream. Just as a typical Spike Lee joint starts smack in the middle of an African American story, Lin firmly takes Asian American identity and achievement as a complex, multi-faceted given and begins in medias res.

“Got to repraZENT”
It was so
completely refreshing that BLT featured a talented all-Asian-Am cast playing against and beyond stereotype. The main characters were unlike any ever seen on screen—a truly pan-ethnic group of guys (playing Filipino, Chinese, and Korean high school students), a Chinese girl adopted into an Anglo family—and they were portrayed with depth and dimension.

Because the film traces the genealogy of desires and decisions that lead to events spiraling out of control, without explicitly passing judgment on the morality of those decisions, the film has generated a great deal of controversy, especially since its screening at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Calling the film “amoral” and an insult to Asian Americans, a white critic asked Lin and the cast how they could justify making a film like this. They tried to answer…and Roger Ebert finally stepped in to defend them, saying that Asian Americans could represent themselves however they wish.

The power of seeing multiple representations of yourself or your community cannot be underestimated. The furor this film has raised echoes other debates about authenticity within media in the realm of pop culture.

Bill Cosby addressed questions about the worth of portraying African American professionals and their upper middle class family lives in The Cosby Show. These were people with solid achievements under their belts, not the struggling strivers of shows like Good Times. The mainstream TV-watching public was simply unfamiliar with this other slice of life from black America. Likewise, whether you appreciate his lyrics or find them deeply offensive, Eminem earns his street
cred as a “white trash” rapper the hard way. Here in BLT, we see characters who hail from the Asian America that isn’t about restaurant delivery boys, mom-and-pop delis or Laundromats, or shy-flower mail-order brides. The true diversity within any given group is a simple fact to be recognized and integrated into how we see and live in the world.

Political and cultural soapbox aside, Better Luck Tomorrow fulfills most of its ambitions in a clean, solid, and smart fashion. And if there is a message to take from it, it is perhaps that we need to examine our stereotypes and motivations, check them at the door, and see what part we may play in enabling the moral slide of others.