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Lucky 'Tomorrow'

With 'Better Luck Tomorrow,' director Justin Lin has broken new ground in Asian-American cinema

By Tiffany I. Hsieh, Crimson Staff Writer

A privileged, suburban high school overachiever almost certainly bound for a prestigious Ivy League college. Sound familiar?

That’s Ben (Parry Shen), the multi-talented, multi-faceted multi-tasker, Academic Decathlon superstar and star of Better Luck Tomorrow. While Ben’s not volunteering as a translator at the hospital, building his SAT vocabulary or working part-time at the local fast food joint, he’s pulling scams, dealing drugs and ruling a suburban community with his gang. Think of them—Ben and his buddies Virgil, Daric and Han—as the Honor Roll Mafia, overachievers at everything good and bad.

Not only is director Justin Lin’s film a complex, exhilarating exploration of issues that movies often gloss over—teen violence, for example—it’s also the first Asian-American film to be chosen by the Sundance Film Festival and the first to be distributed by MTV Films.

But the road to this success was a long one, and the future of Better Luck Tomorrow is still uncertain.

The Little Film That Could

As part of a national grass-roots campaign to publicize the movie, which opens today in select major cities, Lin gave a preview screening of his film at the Harvard Film Archive last month. The screening was so packed that the Harvard Asian American Association, which sponsored the event, had to turn people away from the doors of the theater.

It’s a long way to have come from the film’s humble beginnings.

Lin certainly hasn’t forgotten these, telling stories of enticing kid extras with free pizza and managing to stretch a shoestring budget to fund this project, which he says “came out of desperation.”

“I thought, ‘if I only get one chance to max out 10 credit cards, what would I do?’” he says.

After immigrating from Taiwan to the U.S. when he was nine, Lin and his family settled in southern California, where he later attended Cypress High School in Orange County. He admits many scenes in Better Luck Tomorrow were actually filmed at this location, ruefully acknowledging that the crew shot “wherever we could get away with it.”

“I had the luxury of time, because I had no money,” he says. “There are pros and cons to that. You know that everyone’s there for the right reasons, but you wonder, ‘How am I going to feed the crew?’”

That changed when judges chose Better Luck Tomorrow for dramatic competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a selection coveted by independent filmmakers around the world.

The “little film that no one knew about” generated a huge buzz at Sundance. Immediately after the film was screened, three different distribution companies approached Lin and offered to market it.

Stereotypes from Charlie Chan to Jackie Chan

Mainstream Hollywood was not built from risky business but from safe investments. All the acting and directing talent is nothing without opportunities to display it. This is Lin’s distinctly pragmatic view of the film industry, understandable since he couldn’t afford—literally—to be idealistic.

“Within the last year, I’ve learned a lot about the movie business, and it sucks,” Lin deadpans, eliciting laughs from the crowd. “I don’t want to know about it.”

He says that releasing, distributing and marketing an independent film is often an arduous, disillusioning process.

“When I met with marketers, they showed me a [demographic] pie,” Lin says. “They said, ‘Asian-American spending patterns are the same as white people’s, so we just consider them white.’”

Behind these shocking declarations is a business that has produced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans dating back to 1930s Charlie Chan movies, and more recently, take-out delivery boys and kung fu masters who only speak broken English. The stereotypical overachievers in academia have been spectacular under-achievers in cinema, with their roles largely consigned to these typecast pigeonholes.

Even with Better Luck Tomorrow, according to Lin, “Distributors said, ‘Hey, can you change them [your characters] to white kids? I know Macaulay Culkin would be good.’”

What’s more, according to Lin, some of the people who wanted to change the characters’ ethnicities were themselves Asian-American.

Lin says his film could have a huge impact on Asian-American actors by creating new roles.

“Hopefully this film will create better opportunities not only for Asian-American actors but for all minorities, who up to now have always been cast as minorities,” he says.

He compares the contemporary burgeoning Asian-American cinema to the circumstances facing African-American cinema in the 1980s, when people said, “‘Oh, you can’t relate to African-American leads like Denzel Washington.’”

Based on the success of Washington and other prominent actors, Lin is cautiously optimistic about the future of Asian-American film in general, but less so when it comes to individual Asian-American actors.

He notes that casting for Better Luck Tomorrow, which took three months, was such a protracted process primarily because “Asian-American actors in Los Angeles aren’t even aware of the roles out there, they’re so used to the shitty roles, the one-liners.”

Lin cites the collection of clips that constitutes Jason Tobin’s (Virgil) film résumé; Tobin has appeared in at least five major television shows and blockbuster movies—every time playing a Chinese food delivery boy.

Needless to say, there has never been an Asian-American film, produced and directed by and starring Asian-Americans, with a budget over two million dollars.

“Financially, we’re not even on the level of the playing field,” Lin says.

Paving the Way for Asian-American Film

In spite of the scarcity of its budget, Better Luck Tomorrow is certainly impressive. For what Lin’s film lacks in money it makes up in creativity and energy, and magazines from Premiere to Newsweek to Rolling Stone have commented on this.

Roger Ebert called it “extraordinarily accomplished and thought-provoking,” and defended the film’s representation of Asian-Americans when it came under fire at Sundance for portraying Asians in a less than wholly positive light.

Even so, only two black-and-white outcomes—snowballing into success or simply vanishing into celluloid archives—await most small independent films. The recent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding basked in the light of the former, but all too often, low-budget movies fall victim to obscurity.

As a result, a lot hinges on the success of Better Luck Tomorrow. After the movie is “platform” released today—it opens in Boston on April 18—it will test-run in a limited number of theaters to gauge the amount of audience response before distributors decide to pull it from theaters or to expand its run. Studios, after all, are only concerned with how much a film makes, and Lin isn’t afraid to acknowledge this reality.

“If it doesn’t do well in two weeks, this entire three-year journey is over,” Lin says matter-of-factly. “We don’t have billboards or talk shows, but we do have the power of word-of-mouth, and it really depends on the viewer.”

The cast and crew of Better Luck Tomorrow have been canvassing colleges in Chicago as well as on both coasts, spreading news about the film with the assistance of intercollegiate organizations.

As for other Asian-American filmmakers, “they’re holding on, to see how this film does,” Lin says.

“There’s a lot riding on it, but I’m glad, because we’ve never even gotten to this stage before.”

A Question of Identity

In Better Luck Tomorrow, the suburban ennui is different from the ennui of the slick, impersonal American Beauty, but neither is it Not Another Teen Movie. Ben, Virgil, Daric and Han escape from privileged pre-college boredom through drugs, crime and violence.

“These kids are so smart that they build façades, which leads to more repression, and I wanted to explore that,” Lin says. “That was the most important thing to me, the number one goal.”

Part of the reason for the controversy at Sundance stemmed from Lin’s truthful, realistic depiction of Asian-American teenagers, a group often branded the “model minority.”

“I don’t want to fall into the model minority myth,” Lin says, “I didn’t want to make a film about teen violence where the kids were all ‘good.’ You see plenty of these kids on TV, and they’re always there for an Asian reason.”

Unlike those in The Joy Luck Club, the characters in Better Luck Tomorrow do not dwell on the fact that they are Asian-Americans. They’re just teenagers living the American life, navigating the painfully comic and sometimes tragic terrain of adolescence.

Yet even Lin says that he had trouble “looking outside the box” and crafting realistic characters.

“I read the second draft of the script, and I realized that they weren’t real—I had to try harder to make them real,” he says.

And how did he achieve this?

“I drew back on experiences in my own youth,” he says. “A lot of their humor, their timing, I remember from my own high school, my own friends. I can totally identify with the angst, the anguish, the shopping for identity. I’m just trying to stay true to this mentality.”

With its specific perspectives, it seems that Better Luck Tomorrow focuses on an extremely narrow microcosm of life. But Lin says he is confident that identifying with the characters—Asian or otherwise—will not be a problem, emphasizing that the complexity of life is a common thread that ties everyone together.

“Hopefully you see them as three-dimensional characters with flaws, not as caricatures,” he says. “They’re just kids—they just make decisions that lead to other decisions.”

Despite demands from MTV Films, Lin refused to alter the ending of his film.

“It’s set up so that you can talk among yourselves,” he says, without revealing the ending. “They have to live with everything that’s happened. It’s not about tying everything up—that’s not what happens in real life. At the end, you’ll ask yourself, ‘How the hell did these kids get to where they did, and what are they going to do now?’”

—Staff writer Tiffany I. Hsieh can be reached at tihsieh@fas.harvard.edu.

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