Nothing shatters an upright reputation like a ghastly little crime spree.
"Better Luck Tomorrow," opening in select major cities Friday, doesn't break down the "model minority" stereotype of Asian Americans as straight-A offspring of pious immigrants; it blows it to smithereens with a morally ambiguous tale of sex, drugs and violent death.
In the movie, overachieving Asian American high schoolers escape their dull suburban existence by dealing drugs and stealing computer hardware until their fast lives culminate in a grisly murder.
"It just felt good to do things I couldn't put in my college application," says Ben, the protagonist and narrator. "What else could we do? It was 'suburbia.' "
The indie film got a blast of fame last year at the Sundance Film Festival, where its debased theme caused a raucous discussion in the audience about the political correctness of portraying Asian Americans in such a negative light. MTV Films saw gold in the controversy and bought "Better Luck," banking that the movie will appeal to a young, hip audience.
Paramount Pictures is distributing the movie as MTV Films' partner. It opens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, with wider distribution possible in the following weeks, depending on its performance. All of which may give "Better Luck" the best shot at mainstream success for a film with all Asian American leads since "The Joy Luck Club" a decade ago.
In many ways, "Better Luck" is the antithesis of "Joy Luck," the immigrant saga based on Amy Tan's novel that preceded a surge in small movies about Asian immigrants and their struggles to fit in America. These films, most of them made on a shoestring and fairly obscure, include V.V. Dachin Hsu's "My American Vacation," another tale about the chasm between Asian mothers and their American-born daughters; the Filipino American coming-of-age story "The Debut" by the Basco brothers, Dion and Derek; and the comical "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce" by Chi Muoi Lo, about a black couple and their adopted Vietnamese children.
In all these movies, ethnicity defines the characters and is central to the plot. But the teenagers in "Better Luck" do not dwell on the fact that they are Asian.
"As an Asian American filmmaker, I wanted to make a movie that was real and nonapologetic," said Justin Lin, 31, a Taiwanese native who grew up in Buena Park, in north Orange County. "I don't live my life always explaining why I need to exist, so I don't want my characters to have to."
Lin's first cut at this notion came in his 1997 movie "Shopping for Fangs" -- co-directed with fellow UCLA Film School graduate Quentin Lee. It took a witty look at the everyday life of Asian American Gen-Xers.
The rough-around-the-edges film was praised by some critics as a valiant effort by a pair of talented novice filmmakers; it played in a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and around the country but had scant commercial success.
"Better Luck" is a more refined film with a chance to reach a national audience by virtue of its Sundance buzz and some studio marketing muscle.
"BLT," as the movie is known among its partisans, follows the lives of a group of teenagers whose biggest aspiration in life is to go to college so they can escape a mind-numbing existence of cookie-cutter homes and suburban complacency.
Ben, played by Parry Shen, and class clown Virgil, played by Jason Tobin, are honor-roll students. Together with Virgil's bad-boy cousin Han, played by Sung Kang, the trio earns pocket money by conning computer stores with bogus returns.
They quickly graduate to other scams with the help of Daric, the school valedictorian and president of virtually every club, portrayed by Roger Fan. "We don't have to play by the rules," Daric tells Ben.
In between filling out applications to Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, the boys kill time selling cheat sheets and drugs, making jaunts to Las Vegas and throwing wild parties. The film is sprinkled with glancing comical ethnic references. "What are you guys, a math club?" a stripper asks the group after she performs for them.
When Ben makes the junior varsity basketball team, only to warm the bench, Daric writes an article in the school paper about tokenism. Soon, a group of nerdy Asian students is attending every game in ethnic solidarity, carrying signs reading, "Free Ben."
The gang meets Steve, a private-school snob who wants to give his parents a reality check by robbing the family mansion. Steve enlists Ben and his friends. But the scheme takes a shocking and unexpected turn.
At Sundance and in other screenings, audiences gasped at the movie's disturbing denouement.
The plot is loosely inspired by the real-life case of Stuart Tay, a Tustin teenager bludgeoned to death in 1993 by fellow Asian American teens. Both victim and his killers were from well-to-do suburban families with Ivy League futures.
Lin said he followed the Tay case in the newspapers but describes his movie as a work of pure fiction that draws on an amalgam of influences, including the Columbine shootings, to tell a story about youth violence.
By making it with Asian American characters, he got to tell it from a unique perspective.
"Certain acts of violence, particularly those involving youth or ethnic minorities, stem from a basic human need, the desire to belong," said Lin, who wrote the script with Ernesto M. Foronda, another UCLA alumnus, and childhood friend Fabian Marquez.
But some found the plot offensive. After a Sundance screening, a man in the audience chastised Lin for making a movie "so empty and amoral for Asian Americans and for Americans."
The comment prompted a retort from movie critic Roger Ebert, who was also in the audience. "Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?' " Ebert shot back. "This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be."
The theater erupted in cheers, and the buzz began in earnest. Shortly after, MTV Films picked up the movie for $500,000, according to the film's publicist. MTV Films executives would not confirm the purchase price but said they had committed an additional $1 million to promote it.
MTV Films has produced a number of movies ranging from "Jackass: The Movie" and "Save the Last Dance" to "Election." "Better Luck Tomorrow" is the first independent film the 8-year-old company has bought. "Box office is important, but almost secondary," said David Gale, an executive vice president at the studio. "It is important for our brand to be associated with a movie like this. It is like nothing else."
For the actors -- most of them virtual unknowns who have scrambled for Hollywood roles as Chinese food delivery boys or martial arts extras -- the film is a rare opportunity.
"People who have seen the movie have said, 'Five minutes into the movie I totally forgot you guys were Asian,' " Shen said.
"To me that is great. I got some flak from Asian Americans who say, why are you happy about that? But they don't understand, my face has been keeping me from a lot of work. I am not ashamed of being Asian, but for five years I was always that guy behind the desk at the library or delivering food."
The stakes for "Better Luck" may go beyond the actors and filmmakers involved.
"If 'BLT' doesn't do well at the box office, I think it's very possible for Hollywood to feel that there isn't a market for, quote, Asian American films," said Philip Chung, a Los Angeles playwright who is raising funds to make a horror movie with a mostly Asian American cast including Fan. "This could be a watershed moment in the history of Asian American cinema. This could be our 'She's Gotta Have It,' " the movie that introduced Spike Lee to broad audiences.
Chiel Kong, co-artistic director of a Los Angeles-based Asian American theater group, caught an early screening of the movie. "This is the best thing that could ever happen to us," he said. "I'm happy that it offends people because it is forcing us to stop accepting other people's idea of what Asian Americans are."
Taking a marketing cue from other recent low-budget movies, "Better Luck" supporters are promoting the movie with a widespread grass-roots movement at college campuses and an Internet campaign urging Asian Americans "to vote at the box office."
An arduous path
For Lin and the cast, it has been a manic journey, from the five-week shooting schedule around Los Angeles and Orange counties two years ago to the relentless promotional tours across college campuses nationwide.
"I didn't know it was going to be this intense," a tired-looking Lin said at his parents' fish and chips restaurant in Anaheim. "But I can't complain. This is my dream."
Lin, an unassuming type whose wardrobe runs to jeans and plain shirts, had not seen his parents in months. The black limousine that had brought him from a radio interview at UC Irvine looked out of place in the strip mall.
"Better Luck" may be poised to break long-held Hollywood stereotypes, but at least one part of the movie follows a traditional plot line: how it got made. To help finance the $250,000 film, Lin said he maxed out 10 credit cards and sold his Ford truck. "Last year I was eating oatmeal every day," said the soft-spoken filmmaker, who in 2002 was named one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch."
The truck has been replaced with a brand new Infiniti G35 sedan, but Lin still lives in a modest duplex in West Los Angeles. Among his upcoming projects is "Tenth Justice," a political thriller he helped rewrite and is set to direct for Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox.
When Lin was looking for backers for "Better Luck," some investors suggested he make the movie with white or African American characters to make it more marketable. He stuck to the story he wanted to tell.
"I really thought 'BLT' could be my last film," he said. "I had to think, 'If you get to make only one film, what is the most important thing to you?' "