Better Luck Tomorrow
* * *
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Ernesto Foronda & Justin Lin
Producers: Julie Asato, Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin
Starring: Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Karin Anna Cheung, and John Cho et al.
Power to My People: Better Luck Next Time?
“Bet” beat out “three,” “it,” “pushing,” and “hi” for Week 12 of Film Phonics. According to IMDB, there are ninety-two films with the actual word “bet” in the title, including a short Irish film called “Bet Your Arse” (Jim Nugent, 1996) that would not have been obtainable. My choice for the twelfth Film Phonics review came about when I saw an episode of the CBS show “Without a Trace,” in which missing persons cases are the focus. One of the actors looked very familiar; I remember seeing his face in a computer commercial. When the show ended, I recalled this guy’s participation in the only independent film—to my knowledge—made by an Asian(American)* and featuring a virtually no-name cast that has played in movie theatres outside of New York City and Los Angeles.
After his film “Better Luck Tomorrow” created a lot of buzz at Sundance in 2002, MTV Films released it theatrically, and then Paramount Pictures distributed it as DVD in 2003. Upon watching Lin’s film, it makes perfect sense why the music video channel would help lend an exhibitor’s hand: some sex, some drugs, and some violence. “Better Luck Tomorrow” is essentially about how high schoolers Ben (Parry Shen, the guy in “Without a Trace” and that computer commercial), Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Daric (Roger Fan), and Han (Sung Kang) get into trouble. Although the film centers on a set of Asian-American characters, Lin’s work could really be about any bunch of teenagers living anywhere in the country. The director only incorporates uniquely Asian-American personality/behavioral tendencies, such as an obsession with doing one’s homework and studying for the SAT’s.
What makes ”Better Luck Tomorrow” different from other teen films is that many of the events in the plot take place either at school or in direct relation to school (biology class, club meetings, academic decathlon practices, active participation in studying). The film is stylistically solid, with the utilization of various camera angles and manipulations in film speed, but it’s also narratively weak. Lin begins the film with a scene that indicates “Better Luck Tomorrow” could be a dark comedy, but he doesn’t effectively develop this tone. After this initial scene, a title appears:”4 months ago.” Ben takes the role of the narrator, and quick montage sequences introduce the other characters. Even though Ben’s voice-overs serve as audio bridges between scenes, there isn’t much else to connect one part to the next. In other words, Lin’s film has a very episodic narrative structure, and while you may be thoroughly engaged in each moment, it’s harder to embrace the film as a whole. Furthermore, because there is no convincingly strong sense of conflict, you don’t understand why the film ends as it does.
Character development is another problem. It’s clear that Ben is the anchoring element in this film. He’s the storyteller after all, and he’s got an important role. Lin is clever enough to remember that because Ben is narrating, he has to be in every scene in order to know what happens to the other people. The director also maintains a certain consistency with respect to character behavior. For instance, when Ben talks about memorizing vocabulary words, Lin shoots him repeating the words and their definitions once while he feeds his fish, and a second time when he’s in bed. Lin repeats this sequence a total of five times. Significantly, each word reflects the main character’s state of mind.
Ben becomes one of the most likeable mainly because you learn the most about him. Nonetheless, when the film comes close to its end, and is supposed to provide more information regarding the first scene, you cannot figure out why it happened, which is another weakness in the film. One of the most important elements of any story, at least to the audience, is why characters behave the way they do and make the decisions they make. Lin provides us with facts and some superficial reasons—nothing feels real. “Better Luck Tomorrow” discusses the theme of exteriors masking interiors—nothing is ever the same on the inside as it is on the outside—but the construction of the narrative and incomplete character development almost obscures the ideology. Keyword: almost.
Justin Lin has the technical skills, and I don’t doubt that he has bonafide talent. He just needs to keep working at the _expression of his ideas. As IMDB also informs, he has a handful of new projects that I will (eagerly) await…including “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which is currently filming. He has also just announced the American remake of Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy” (2003). Hmmm.
* “Asian(American)” as opposed to “Asian-American” because the latter implies one was born in the US. The former suggests that one may have been born elsewhere but has lived in America for a substantially long enough time to have adopted the “American” descriptor.
Every week, Stina Chyn puts her viewing habits in your hands. Readers vote on five random words posted at Back Talk every Tuesday. The winning word dictates what she will have to watch and review the following week as that word must appear in the title of the movie. Choose wisely!