No More Model Minority

BY LYNN LEE

Better Luck Tomorrow begins and ends with a shock. First-time director Justin Lin is clearly bent on subverting any expectations the average viewer might bring to a movie about six Asian American high school students in the affluent ‘burbs of Orange County, California. And this he does, in an edgy, intermittently brilliant film that’s about equal parts black comedy, teen social satire and open-ended morality tale.

The narrator and central character of the movie is Ben (Parry Shen), a sweet-faced high school overachiever on the fast track to a stack of Ivy League acceptance letters. He maintains stellar grades and permanent “Employer of the Month” status at the local burger joint, does loads of community service, makes the J.V. basketball and academic decathlon teams and studies a gazillion SAT vocabulary words and practices over two hundred foul shots a day. But, as the cashbox under his bed reveals, he also parsues some extracurricular activities that, as he puts it, can’t be put on his resume.

Ben’s original partners-in-crime are his best friend Virgil (Jason Tobin), a motor-mouthed, hyperactive social misfit, and Virgil’s cousin Han (Sung Kang), who doesn’t talk much and looks way too old to be a high schooler, but whose smoldering scowl and knack for lighting a cigarette put James Dean to shame. The trio join forces with Daric (Roger Fan), at first glance a taller, older, more polished version of Ben himself, but whose smiling front belies a whole lot of seething resentment and a consuming addiction to illegal behavior. Daric runs the school cheat-sheet racket, and, teamed with the other three, soon expands their exploits to riskier, more lucrative crimes. Drunk on their new mystique as the school’s “Chinese mafia,” they begin indulging in drugs, sex, wild partying and gunplay. Predictably, Ben eventually wants out, but he agrees to help pull one last crime: a heist set up by the local rich kid among rich kids, Steve (John Cho), a prep-schooler who happens to date the girl Ben pines for (Karin Anna Cheung). Equally predictably, the scheme goes horribly wrong. But how it goes wrong and the final consequences are emphatically unpredictable and deeply unsettling.

As a send-up of the Asian American “model minority” myth, Better Luck Tomorrow is dead-on and wickedly funny. Which is not to say that it’s quite believable; as one of my SoCal friends remarked, in his high school there were Asian gangs and there were Asian American students, but the two groups didn’t overlap. Lin’s inspiration is to collapse the two sets of stereotypes into one, and pull the rug out from under both. The result is not reality, but a kind of hyper-reality, in which all the traits commonly attributed to Asian Americans are heightened and radically reconfigured.

But Lin is plainly striving for something that goes beyond Asian American identity politics. The movie is also a variation on what one might call the Columbine theme – that is, the isolation and hidden angers of modern suburban teenagers which lead to seemingly inexplicable violence. Hence, perhaps, the total absence of parents and other figures of moral authority. We see the trappings of civic responsibility (getting good grades, collecting recycling, volunteering in hospitals), but they’re symbols emptied of meaning except as resume-boosters. A similar sense of meaninglessness surrounds the crimes the boys commit. The chief motive appears to be simple boredom; in the words of Ben, “We were in the suburbs; what else were we expected to do?” What else, indeed, in a culture that’s obsessed with surface and appearance, whether of virtues or crimes.

Stylistically, Lin’s film is an impressive debut, hardly betraying that it was shot on a shoestring budget. Its quick jump-cuts and non-linear narrative owe something to movies like Run Lola Run and Pulp Fiction, as well as countless MTV videos, but also boasts some original and truly mesmerizing sequences – as when the gang of four, night-cruising in their car after delivering a violent, viscerally satisfying comeuppance to a white teen bigot, glance out the window to see a car filled with real (or are they?) gangsters pull up aside them and look them in the eye, sneering softly as one of them waves a gun. These brief, dreamlike moments – some of the most effective in the entire movie – lend themselves to an endless number of interpretations.

So do the characters, who are convincing to the extent that they, too, are no more than a composite of constantly shifting appearances and images. They don’t seem capable of thinking for themselves on any deeper level, except in the rare but absolutely crucial (and very well played) moments when their rage suddenly bubbles to the surface. The actors do a surprisingly compelling job of conveying adolescents who seem to have no real motivation for anything they do.

The one character who doesn’t convince at all is unfortunately also the sole female character: Stephanie, Ben’s unattainable crush. Part of this is due to Cheung’s stiff performance, but part of it is also the undeniable fact that this is a strictly male-dominated movie. It really is the anti-Joy Luck Club. I have to say I personally relate much more to Amy Tan’s mother-daughter bonding than to the morally displaced, culturally fragmented universe of Lin’s characters. And yet there’s also a part of me that used to fantasize in high school about how easy it would be for me to get away with crimes just because I was the prototypical Asian American model student. Of course I didn’t try it – which is why Ben’s transgressions carry a special zing for viewers like me.

It may also be the reason why the ending comes as such a shock. Ben turns out to have no more of a moral compass than any of his friends – in fact, perhaps less – and because we’ve been rooting for him throughout it all, it’s hard not to feel a sense of betrayal. Yet, on another level, the deeper indictment is of the kind of culture which alienates the character from the very values to which it pays lip service. The unfinished and unmooring quality about Better Luck Tomorrow is no doubt intentional on Lin’s part; whether or not it unmoors the film itself depends on the moral grounding of the individual viewer.

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