In Case You Missed It: Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
Growing up Hispanic in the predominantly Caucasian suburbs of Long Island was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I was given an opportunity that most minorities missed out on and was able to make the best of my surroundings on my way to an Ivy League education. On the other hand, there were times when I lost my identity and had to be cruelly reminded that I was a Hispanic in a mostly white world.
I was consumed with some of these thoughts the first time I saw 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin’s debut feature film. Justin Lin would go on to blockbuster success with the Fast & Furious franchise (films 3 thru 6) and Star Trek Beyond (my choice for the best of the recent series) but his initial calling card to the cinematic world was this sometimes funny but mostly dark look at Asian American students and their gradual escalation from academic overachievement into criminal enterprising. It’s part “Head of the Class,” part Boyz N The Hood, part Goodfellas.
At the outset we meet Ben (Parry Shen), who is established as an uber-overachiever. In an early montage we see him at his part time fast food job where he has an extensive knowledge of the menu and its caloric count. We see him practicing free throw shooting in hopes of making the school basketball team as well as breaking a little known record. He is studying for the SATs which involves learning a new word every day and is involved in numerous after school clubs. He has bought into the concept of doing anything and everything that can be featured on his prospective college applications.
We also meet his best friend, Virgil (Jason Tobin), who is loyal to a fault and a bit hot-headed. They spend most of their time hanging out with Virgil’s cousin, Han (Sung Kang), who has the stereotypical muscle car. I’m still not sure if Han is an actual student or if he is just pulling a McConaughey from Dazed and Confused, but much less pervy.
Ben has an unrequited crush on Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). She seems to be the stereotypical cheerleader but she may be just as smart as Ben, as demonstrated in a scene when she is offended that Ben has done an assignment for her. But alas, Stephanie is dating Steve (John Cho), who goes to another school and seems to toy with Ben and the feelings he knows that he has for Stephanie.
The other important character thrown into the mix is Daric (Roger Fan), the impending senior class valedictorian and captain of the school’s academic decathlon team. Daric introduces himself to Ben in the guise of a newspaper article he is writing about the basketball team. Ben is duped when it turns out that Daric’s piece is about Ben’s race and how he is just a token player who will not see any actual playing time.
Ben is rightfully upset, even if there may be some residual truth to Daric’s reporting. Ben confronts him and Daric is impressed by Ben’s moxie. Daric recognizes Ben as someone with a lot of potential, both in and outside of school, and soon a “gang” is formed. Over the course of the school year we watch as Ben, Virgil, Han, and Daric start with retail return scams, move on to academic cheat sheets for cash, and quickly graduate to petty theft, grand scale robbery and beyond. It is uncanny how quickly the schemes intensify.
Ben and all of the major characters are Asian-American which is never truly highlighted, aside from Daric’s early journalistic campaign. I doubt the film strives to be emblematic of the Asian-American high school experience in America today. But as a minority, it was easy for me to empathize with these characters and I do think the film speaks to many universal truths. It’s about striving be accepted (both among friends and by society in general) and what happens when you find a group where you feel you truly belong. It’s also about the allure of easy money and how quickly things can spiral out of control by a choice or two. I’d like to think that the majority of us would not go as far as this group goes but it’s easy to identify with them and is very entertaining throughout.
The film is visually striking and eye-catching. During a recent viewing my wife noted that the film has a very “90’s sensibility,” a sort of music video nostalgia. I thought some of the montages reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s hyper kinetic style. And though it works, I am glad that Justin Lin has graduated to some level of restraint in his more recent work, not repeating the same shtick.
I do not want to give too much away but be prepared for the violence. There’s a reason I mentioned Goodfellas earlier, which is slightly referenced in the opening scene where Ben and Virgil’s idyllic morning is interrupted by an overlooked detail. Better Luck Tomorrow is sleek and funny with high energy and moments of violence but also has quiet moments of truth. And as a Puerto Rican kid growing up on Long Island, it makes me feel grateful for my mostly boring upbringing considering the wild ride we see taken by Ben and his friends.