Just before everything blows to smithereens in Justin Lin's aggressively impolite social satire "Better Luck Tomorrow," the film's four lead characters take cover in that great American refuge -- their car. The four, Asian American high school students who are fast earning a reputation as toughs, have just left a party where one of them drew a gun on a white jock just before two of them started furiously kicking in the guy's head. Escaping into the night in a red Mustang, the four are experiencing an emblematic SoCal moment.
Seated in the back and still high on the violence, one of the kids, Virgil (Jason Tobin), giddily chatters, oblivious to his friends' uncomfortable silence. "I went," he giggles, lost in the triumphant memory, "jihad on his face." Without warning, the beats floating off the car stereo are drowned out by a louder, more insistent rhythm as a car carrying four Latino gangbangers slides next to the Mustang. One of the kids, Daric (Roger Fan), quickly turns off the radio and along with the driver, Han (Sung Kang), and the narrator, Ben (Parry Shen), nervously eyes the other car. Even when one of the gangbangers brandishes a gun, Virgil keeps throwing his phony gangsta poses. Then fear descends and he wails, "I'm going to juvie" again and again.
Played within an inch of tragedy, the scene lasers in on the comic contradictions of modern American identity, especially for citizens of the pop monoculture. Raised in Orange County and weaned on hip-hop, the four teenagers casually slip on and off identities like masks. To the outside world they exemplify the overachieving sons of Chinese and Korean immigrants, the "model minorities" of so much sociological curiosity and social hostility. Along with the school's other geeks and freaks, they spend their waking hours cramming their heads with data, memorizing names and numbers to jack up their averages. Like the ticky-tacky Spielbergian developments in which they've been raised, their lives are designed for maximum utility and a minimum of individuality.
By turns broadly funny and absurdly broad, "Better Luck Tomorrow" is an anatomy of identity in a culture in which identity comes booming through radio speakers, embroidered on baseball caps and emblazoned on luxury imports. Written by Lin and his friends Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez, and structured around an extended flashback, the story traces what happens to Ben when he and his friends shake off their nice-boy credentials to become the schoolyard bullies.
Led by Daric, a Machiavellian operator in a letterman's jacket, the four friends start hustling cheat sheets to the academically challenged. From there it's a short hop to petty larceny, drug peddling, too much cocaine, too many guns and far too much bad-boy attitude by way of "Scarface," "GoodFellas" and other gangsta clichés in rotation.
Although identity is the film's target, "Better Luck Tomorrow" takes specific aim at the American dream by way of the Asian American experience. Lin, like his fellow writers, grew up in Orange County and the movie is based on a short-film script he wrote at UCLA. He claims that this isn't his story but what gives the feature its vigor is its personal flavor. Lin takes an appreciably jaundiced view toward the model minority stereotype. Ben and his friends are Asian Americans in appearance and name but their identities are fluid and ambivalent. In their language, their music, Virgil's baggy jeans and Ben's love of basketball, they aren't any different from any other kids, meaning they're not any different from any other American kid who takes his cues from a very selective, commercial slice of black America.
If a film about four Asian American kids who refer to one another as homies (and worse) while living in Orange County sounds ambitious -- it is. "Better Luck Tomorrow" is one of the more large-minded American independent films to emerge recently and if the entire film were as good as the showdown scene with the gangbangers, it would stand among the most promising of the year. It has the virtue of Lin's tangy wit but it also suffers from the vice of a director who, torn between personal vision and wide public reach, tends to smother his ideas under a veneer of cool. However cynically he views teen identity, Lin also knows that his movie is being sold to a demographic who buys the outward talismans of their identities down at the local mall.
Even when he's pulling punches, Lin's ambivalence toward identity remains honest. Although the film is set in the recognizable present, amid a stupefying suburban anonymity that's almost ethnographic in its detail, the overall mood is that of timelessness. That sense of the story as an allegory of alienation helps Lin avoid the millstone of documentary realism that can weigh heavily on nonwhite artists. Like Tom Cruise's high schooler in Paul Brickman's similarly metaphoric "Risky Business," Lin's characters live in a world largely absent parental supervision. Cut loose from family, Ben and his friends exist in an eternal pop present that's free of the burden of historical memory, cultural allegiance and, as it turns out, morality.
Caught between making a movie with universal appeal and one that's keyed to the stereotype of the model minority, Lin can't help but go occasionally astray. Like Virgil, he seems intoxicated by bloodshed and late in the story he unleashes a paroxysm of violence that's exasperatingly simple-minded, not only on the level of ideas but in pure narrative terms. An accomplished technician and an adept director of actors, Lin doesn't have a distinctive visual style but he does have the advantage of being as smart as he is slick. In "Better Luck Tomorrow," he never eases the pace long enough to unsnarl the story's knottier kinks -- namely, whether monolithic identity is a crock and why -- but he's engaged with the world to a degree that's rare in the indie scene. He's not averse to making us think; he just knows that first he's got to catch our attention.
'Better Luck Tomorrow'
MPAA rating: R, for violence, drug use, language and sexuality
Times guidelines: A lot of gun waving and cocaine use, some face stomping and one gory head bashing
Parry Shen ... Ben
Jason Tobin ... Virgil
Sung Kang ... Han
Roger Fan ... Daric
John Cho ... Steve
Karin Anna Cheung ... Stephanie
Hudson River Entertainment, Cherry Sky Films, Day O Productions present a Trailing Johnson Production, released by Paramount Pictures and MTV Films. Director Justin Lin. Writers Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez. Producers Julie Asato, Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin. Director of photography Patrice Lucien Cochet. Production designer Yoojung Han. Editor Justin Lin. Music Semiautomatic, Michael J. Gonzales. Music supervisor Ernesto M. Foronda. Costume designer Sandi Lieu. Casting Donna Tina Charles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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