Justin Lin sure has an interesting resume of films, and by that I mean head scratching. Let’s see, there are 2 sequels to The Fast and the Furious (barf), the naval boxing drama Annapolis, and a mockumentary about finding the body double for Bruce Lee in Game of Death (Finishing the Game) which had all the signs of win but ultimately tried way to hard to be funny, just to name a few. Looking at his IMDB.com page makes me wonder where Better Luck Tomorrow came from. Did big money veer him away from more substance driven stories, or is this the case of an early director getting his personal film out of the way? Whatever the answer may be I can only be hopeful that he decides take a break from cashing those checks and make another film like this in the future because Better Luck Tomorrow, while not completely original or emotionally hard-hitting as it tries to be, is a film that you will enjoy from beginning to end.
Taking place in the upper middle class suburbs, BLT follows 17 year old overachiever Ben Manibag, Parry Shen, and his group of pals as they turn from petty retail thieves and school cheat sheet czars to drug dealers and beyond. Ben is firmly entrenched in becoming the best he can possibly be. His daily routines consist of learning new words and repeating them all day long, shooting 218 free throws in order to beat a shot accuracy record, being part of the Academic Decathlon team, and helping out being a bilingual translator. These all seem very calculated to reaching his goal of getting into an ivy league school. This idea of having to have a completely chaotic and full schedule for a padded resume, leaves the little free time he has left to himself to either study or hang out with his buddies. With no parental supervision at all, as there actually are no parents even shown in the film, Ben's crew use their intellegence and charm to highly exploitive ends. Because of his standing, he gets away with more and pushes himself further with little to no consequence. By surrounding himself with people that use him to their own ends as well, the vicious cycle just escalates to it’s inevitable conclusion.
Once Ben becomes bored with the direction his life is headed and wants out of this life of crime, he begins to make a connection with his female lab partner Stephanie, Karin Anna Cheung, only to find out she is caught in a relationship with a cheating rich boy, John Cho of Harold and Kumar fame. Steve, her boyfriend, comes to Ben’s group and offers up a chance to rob his parents house, but the crew sensing Ben’s dissatisfaction with Steve have other plans in mind for him.
Similar thematically to Larry Clark’s Bully and mildly to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, BLT is yet another film where a group of seemingly bored, unparented teens do as they please and ultimately pay the price for it….sort of. Where the aforementioned films seethed with ominous foreboding and a keen edge thanks to race, economic status, and social/political backdrop, BLT instead feels much more like a teeny bop movie where things go bad. If we disregard that this is a MTV films production, and just go with the style of the film, the presentation alone is more in tune with a younger MTV enriched audience with the obvious editing ticks firmly in place. The main players in the film are all Asian American teens living a fairly well off life with little to no racial problems arising. Other than Ben being called the “Chinese Jordan” after Daric, Roger Fan, writes a story of him being the permanent benchwarmer and token Asian member of the team, these guys seem fairly assimilated into the culture they inhabit. So much so in fact that at times, as the viewer, I felt that this movie could have been played out by a completely Caucasian cast and not missed a beat.
Does that mean that there is no context to be read from their ethnicity? Not necessarily, because it can be read as our country slowly becoming that cultural melting pot we have always heard about but never seen in our films. Everyone’s story eventually becomes the same and the cookie cutter existence of the American Dream takes hold. It’s an refreshing angle and thankfully the typical cultural stereotypes Asians usually inhabit in American film were tossed aside. Whether or not this was the director’s intention isn’t really known, because the film is played as a pretty straight light drama, which is good and bad in my opinion. It doesn’t slap you in the face with the racial agenda, but it also doesn’t delve as deep as it could have gone to make a harder hitting statement. This is the only real complaint I have of the film. Ultimately I believe Lin was more interested in making an entertaining film than any social commentary.
On a whole BLT is a satisfying experience that should please most viewers. The acting and characters are all engaging, fun to watch, and will keep you on to the end even though you will more than likely already figure out their fates well before the conclusion. Is that because it telegraphs itself poorly? Partially, as the beginning sets the seed too well, but I think it is more because of the similar films that have preceded it. There will be a percentage of the audience put off by the films lack of conclusion, but if one takes the overall theme of Ben’s optimism/drive toward his future, ongoing exploitation for personal gain, and read into the title of the film, I think it is a fairly interesting ending that leaves some interpretation up to the viewer for the first time in the film. So if your looking for a much lighter Bully type film, than this will be right up your alley. It is my sincere hope that Justin Lin eventually goes back to this type of film instead of the junk Hollywood fair that he has been cranking out as of late because I would love to see more films in this vein.
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