Breaking the Cycle
Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow comes packing an enthusiastic MTV ad campaign and loads of hype. This last is mostly a function of Roger Ebert’s loud defense of it at Sundance, when one audience member suggested that it offered a “negative” view of Asian Americans. Ebert declared that any film should be able to be what it wants to be, and not worry about community reputations or individual judgments.
Lin’s film wants to be a lot of things. It is about Asian American kids living in Orange County and making plans for college. It’s about violence and excess, about the kind of search for identity that adolescents perennially assume. It’s glib sometimes, and it’s a low budget project. It’s also a smart and engaging high school movie with more on its mind than who’s going to the prom. This much is made clear in the opening scene: Ben (Parry Shen) and his buddy Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) lie in an Orange County backyard, sunning themselves and pondering early admissions (“Ivy Leagues love it, gets ‘em all wet”). The conversation is unexceptional, the shot looks down on them from overhead, their faces shiny with sweat.
And then, a phone rings. “Not mine,” Virg says. Not Ben’s either. They look at one another, startled, as the camera takes other views—first through tree branches, on an angle, and then, ground level, as they’re on their elbows and knees, squirming along the lawn until they find the spot from which the muffled sound emanates. They dig. They find it, buried with a hand, worms all over it. “You never forget the sight of a dead body,” says Ben in voiceover. “But then again, I was experiencing a lot of things for the first time. I guess it’s just part of growing up.”
The camera careens, time-lapsing through the neighborhood, pitched roofs, white exteriors, fences dividing the properties. The frame stops on Ben, in uniform, working the counter at a fast food joint, Employee of the Month, the wall plaque says, every month. A white lady twists her necklace, fretful over what to eat; Ben knows the calories and fat grams in each item. So helpful, so polite. So nice. The lady smiles. “It’s not as hard as it looks,” he says in voiceover. All you have to do is read the manual. What’s important is that it goes on his application, under “extracurricular activities.” Ben works hard at getting to the next step, out of Orange County, Princeton maybe. He practices his free throws for the basketball team, keeps careful notes on his progress, volunteers down at the hospital (where he translates Spanish between doctors and patients), and, in order to get a perfect score on his next SATs, he learns vocabulary words: “They say if you repeat something enough times, it becomes part of you.”
“Punctilious,” reads the screen under Ben as he lies in bed, reciting. “Marked by or concerned about precise exact accordance with the details of codes or conventions.”
Ben is just that, obsessed with doing it everything right, following procedure and keeping his head down; it’s the best way he’s figured to survive high school. He’s a good kid, a “model minority” kid. He lusts just a little after a cheerleader named Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), but she’s already taken, claimed by rich, slightly older Steve (John Cho). When Ben sees that Steve’s also “boning some white chick,” he’s almost driven to tell Stephanie, but no. Ben’s too honorable, too shy, and too enamored of her to break the news. “Girls like her,” he sighs while the film freezes her face against a block of lockers, “Make you realize that life’s not fair.”
To even things up, perhaps, or because he’s bored, or because it’s so easy, Ben cheats: “It started with a pack of baseball cards and then it snowballed. I guess it just felt good to do things that I couldn’t put on my college application.” As long as these activities are confined to scamming computer warehouses on returns of credit card purchases or even selling cheat sheets to their average-student classmates, Ben and his friends coast. “It’s easy as fuck,” says Virgil’s cousin, Daric (Roger Fan). Their straight As are their “passport to freedom”—as long as they keep up appearances, the kids can stay out at “study group” until 4am. “The money was really good,” Ben admits. “But I don’t that’s what attracted me the most.”
They have good reasons to want to stick it to the system. While Ben thinks (or needs to think) he’s on the basketball team because he wants to play, he admits to Daric that he spends most games on the bench. Daric sighs. Ben’s a token: “It’s obvious that the only reason you’re on the team is for cosmetic reasons.” It’s true, adults are also scamming, to meet requirements, to make their lives easier or more exciting. The film underlines adult hypocrisy and lack of attention by never showing a parent (and the only adult with lines is a science teacher, played by Beaver Cleaver, also known as Jerry Mathers). This isn’t to say that Ben and his friends exactly miss any “supervision” that might be offered by adults, but that the film acknowledges, in its visual economy as well as its plotting, the way they understand their lives, their restrictions, obligations, and desires.
Ben takes his accumulating responsibilities seriously—hamburgers and homework, stealing and scamming. He observes the toll it’s taking as he’s snorting coke, trying to stay awake. “It’s literally a fulltime job to make people believe you’re who you’re meant to be.” That Ben is trying to figure out those expectations, how to resist or conform to them, is BLT‘s broadest, most conventional “statement.” But in its details, its plot structured around an academic decathlon, its concentrated colors and fisheye lenses, the film is invigorating and vivid, anything but conventional.
The style goes to show the kids’ sense of pressure and opportunity. Ben’s not the only one who notices how hard it is to find himself. In one brief, bracing scene, Steve practices batting (Mr. All American Sports), the camera zooming in and out, then zip-circling him as he observes, “It’s a never ending cycle. When you got everything you want, what’s left? You can’t settle for being happy, that’s a fucking trap. You gotta take life into your own hands, do whatever it takes to break the cycle. That’s what it is, breaking the cycle.” That is what it is, but, as BLT reveals, the cycle is designed to resist breaking: even when you think you’re out, you’re in; if you’re Ben, overachieving and banging on the side, you’re caught coming or going.
The kids’ escalating violence—they beat down one adversary at a party, take up guns at another point—has generated some controversy (this was one of the questions raised at Sundance). The movie insists that such acting out is just more performance, a way to counter U.S. media’s Asian male stereotypes (polite and undesiring, “desexualized” or “feminized”), but not so subversive as Ben and Virgil first imagine it. More compellingly, the film offers insights into intra-community class and gender dynamics—Ben and Steve’s competition for Stephanie layers such tensions, neatly.
Still, and as much as they consider her as a prize to be won, Stephanie, an adopted child with her own background and identity questions, has been making decisions all along. That she hasn’t made right ones, even for herself, makes her like the guys, but also not—she has a sense of what’s at stake, before Ben does. “You know how you make decisions that lead to other decisions?” she asks him. “And then you realize you don’t remember why you made those decisions in the first place?” He nods, breathless. Stephanie, as she must, keeps breathing.