'It is not 'just' a movie. What hinges on this release is so much larger than the film itself.'"
Better Luck TomorrowDirector: Justin Lin
Cast: Parry Shen, Karin Anna Cheung, Jason J. Tobin, John Cho, Laura Esposito, Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Crystal Keith, Jerry Mathers, Ariadne Shaffer, Aaron Takahashi
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MTV Films
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)
If you've been watching MTV or ESPN the past couple of weeks, you may have caught advertisements for a new film, Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow. The tagline for the campaign is clever ("Never underestimate an overachiever") but the ads are enigmatic as to what the movie or its plot is about. Each separate spot features one of the leads, briefly explaining their characters in a nutshell, i.e., "I'm the valedictorian. I don't play by the rules, I make my own." We're treated to brief images from the film, a montage of sex, money, and violence that's par for most movies coming out every week. In BLT, the striking difference is that all the featured players in the tv ads are Asian American.
It's an understatement to say that Asian American cinema is rarely visible within mainstream U.S. cinema. Before BLT, what most people knew about Asian American film could be summed up by two names: Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Joy Luck Club) and Ang Lee (Wedding Banquet). Justin Lin brings something new. BLT is not about immigration, generational clashes, Chinese railroad workers or Japanese American internment during WWII. Instead, it tells the story of four overachieving high school students wasting away in affluent, Southern California suburbia, turning to crime to alleviate the tedium of college entrance exams and 4th period biology. Lin challenges mainstream perceptions of Asian youth, dashing stereotypes to pieces in this stylishly dark drama.
A surprise hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, BLT was picked up by the gigantic, multimedia machine of MTV Films following a multi-studio bidding war. The predictable result is that, within the Asian American community, BLT has acquired such a momentum that it almost feels like a civic duty to see and/or support the film. Asian American audiences are so starved for anything that affirms their basic existence (something Hollywood has been noticeably piss poor in doing on its own) that the expectation for a film like BLT is enormous. As voiced in an "open letter" from actor Parry Shen, who plays the lead role of Ben in the film, "It is not 'just' a movie. What hinges on this release is so much larger than the film itself."
The closest comparisons to BLT would be Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It! or Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies & videotape. All are small, independent productions that unexpectedly gained mainstream critical support and served as "watershed" moments in film culture. But where Lee and Soderbergh's movies were lauded after their release, BLT has been heralded for the last year. This anticipation hi based largely on high-profile endorsements by Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, and augmented by a savvy grassroots campaign designed to get out as many Asian Americans to the theatres as possible. This kind of buzz machine is many filmmakers' dream, but it's a small nightmare for a critic, especially one who comes from the same community that is rallying around the movie.
Hua Hsu, a writer with The Village Voice, and I have been discussing BLT for several weeks, voicing each other's misgivings about trying to write about a film that we both support, but not uncritically. Hsu wrote a feature on BLT for the Voice (appearing in the 14 April issue) and I wrote reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and AsianAvenue.Com (appearing next week). We feel like we confronted the same pressures of community obligation to support the film, which conflicted with our critical opinions about it. What we began to realize is that debating how to write about the film was as intriguing as writing about the film itself. We assembled the following dialogue based on our conversations.
Oliver Wang: What had you heard about BLT before you saw it?
Hua Hsu: I had heard about the Sundance drama but little else. I have to admit that the controversy made me want to see it, which is significant because the plot synopsis didn't sound all that compelling on its own.
OW: What was your initial reaction?
HH: I was a little underwhelmed. I was impressed by how polished it was, but there were moments that reminded me of too many other Asian American-L.A.-suburban-dystopian films. What did you think?
OW: I think I was taken in by the polish and pacing of the film and by the story itself. Not necessarily the writing per se, which I never found as compelling as it could be, but I liked the ideas behind certain scenes and characters. I found the film sexy and seductive in what it tried to do and in some ways, I think I was willing to laud its ambition even when I felt like the actual craftsmanship was off.
HH: I think I was a lot more cynical about it at first. I kept on wondering whether I would have been patient with the film's lapses (I wasn't really feeling the pacing, for example) had it been a typical Hollywood production. But I also wondered if I was being too hard on it because I was hoping for something grand and representative, whatever that means.
OW: Isn't that the Catch 22 though? On one level, you probably wouldn't have given the film 10 minutes if it weren't Asian American. Yet, that's also what creates an over-investment.
HH: Ultimately, it's unfortunate that we have to invest this much in a single film, in anything.
OW: If BLT was not an Asian American cast or production, would you have cared for it at all? Or is it even possible to divorce the film from its casting?
HH: I can't really answer that question. But do you think that's really what's at stake here? Do you think that it matters how good BLT is? It seems as though the problem is more that we're putting all our faith in one moment, one text. Even if the film had been amazing, I'm not sure we wouldn't have had some representational beef with it.
OW: I hear what you're saying. Maybe it gets better over time. In other words, if BLT even is modestly successful, that will allow the next major Asian American feature to have less weight to carry. I guess, in that way, BLT is a sacrificial lamb. It's going to be highly scrutinized regardless. Let me ask you a different question: do you think non-Asians will want to go see this film?
HH: That's a good question. And also, what expectations will they bring to the film? I really have no idea what kinds of people are going to see the film. There hasn't been a particularly huge promotional push, so I'm not sure how non-AA people are going to come upon this film.
HH: Do you balance an instinct to flag-wave and your responsibilities as a critic? Or rather, an impulse to flag-wave?
OW: I don't think "instinct" is wrong necessarily. I think I have a hair-trigger tendency to either cheerlead or trash because it's hard for me to separate my own identity as an Asian American from any movie that deals in Asian American images. I've tried to distance my critical voice from my personal feelings, but it's been difficult. Every time I think about the film critically, especially in terms of its formal aspects (i.e., writing, pacing, acting, etc.), I'm left wanting. I thought the character development was uneven, that much of the acting was flat, and the editing could have been tighter. But then I sit down to write about it and I always come back to focusing on the positive, mostly because, ultimately, what makes the film compelling to me is its symbolism -- both within the film as well as the film itself -- rather than its formal strengths or weaknesses. And I think that's how I tend to treat Asian American film as a whole.
HH: Do you mean the symbolism of this film existing, or the symbolism within the film?
OW: I mean both. I think the film is very conscious and sly in how it challenges stereotypes. It doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve (at least not to me), but the ways in which the film deals with, for example, masculinity can't just be random. Lin knows as well as anyone about how Asian men are usually portrayed as passive and asexual and all four of his male leads are anything but. I think Lin is deliberately fucking with our expectations and impressions of Asian-ness. At the same time, the film itself, as a symbol, as a rejection of traditional Asian American filmmaking, is compelling to me. He doesn't want to make another Joy Luck Club, thank god.
HH: What struck you about the film's symbolism? I didn't really sense anything too substantive.
OW: It goes to what I was just saying: his characters provide an alternative to the media images we're usually inundated with. They're nerds but vicious. They're thugs but with some depth. Lin can't escape stereotypes but he can find ways to play around with them and give us some interesting characters in the process. I wasn't blown away by the acting -- save Jason Tobin, whom I thought was fantastic -- but I liked the idea behind who these characters were supposed to be. That is, conflicted, complex people. Let me just quickly add that I'm not giving the film props on the basis of "positive media images vs. negative media images." It's that the main leads are all off-kilter. They're a little unstable, rather unpredictable, wholly amoral, and for some reason, I find that totally refreshing. You didn't feel the same?
HH: I would add that Justin's "complicated nerds" are far from universal, even within the Asian American community. We're programming an Asian American film festival at the campus where I study and teach [Harvard], and students definitely seem to feel more association with BLT's characters than, say, the South East Asian youth from refugee backgrounds in Spencer Nakasano's films (a.k.a. Don Bonus, Kelly Loves Tony). There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, since most of these students come from a similar background, but at the same time there is a very real working class/refugee community within the Asian American community that's rarely heard in discussions about how "we" hope to be represented and what "we" want from culture. I'm not saying Justin should be obliged to write about them or be all-representative, but in an odd way, the rough-around-the-edges Tobin/Virgil character -- who, I agree, was fantastic -- almost seems lampoon-ish. Also, I thought the characters weren't just off-kilter, they were pretty unconvincing.
OW: I hear you. Like I noted before, I think character development is one of the film's main liabilities. I was impressed by the idea of who they were, but I didn't always find their actual portrayal to be as keenly executed. I'm especially disappointed that Karin Anna Cheung's character -- who is the only female in the testosterone brigade -- seems to have very little to do in the film, except to be "the girl." She's hardly a non-entity, but I felt like she was the least developed of all the majors.
HH: I'm bringing greater expectations than I should to such a modest film, but the pacing seemed a little off too. The leads go from selling cheat-sheets to dealing coke, but the transition between the two is unclear. You can't tell whether it was days, weeks or months. It's really another example of how BLT has accidentally become a make or break moment for Asian American culture. I've watched the film about three times, always with audiences of different race or class backgrounds, and each time, it becomes more apparent how unusual of a story it is, even by "Asian American" standards. And, since we have so few films to choose from, it becomes a placeholder for all these hopes. And those hopes reflect a fairly narrow experience within "Asian America," whatever that means. Hopefully the success of this film will inspire a healthy, wider discussion about all these things.
OW: I fully agree with you, but I think it's rather impossible to find any film that reflects a broader experience that doesn't break down under that kind of representational load.
HH: This is true, and this is why my criticism isn't of the film but rather the makeshift "Asian American community" that has organized itself in BLT's wake.
OW: Wait. Say more about this "makeshift" community.
HH: Justin himself admits that the Asian American community was far from supportive when he was fundraising. However, now that he has this finished product that offers something potentially fruitful, we have a fairly organized effort among Asian American community groups, student groups, etc., to promote the film in every conceivable way. Now, I have no problem with this (and I fear that I sound a lot more critical in this exchange than I probably am, deep inside) but I am a little concerned with the reasons cited for why we as Asians should support this. We rue how non-representative Hollywood is, yet few people have pointed out how particular the details of this story are to region, class, and gender; even fewer have pointed out that "universalizing" this story might not be a good idea.
OW: But Hua, do you think people are universalizing the story? What makes it interesting to me is that it is so specifically Asian American without ever having to announce it with big banner letters. They never say where the film takes place, but to me, it screams "suburban Southern California," which is unambiguously Asian American as you can get.
HH: I think the grassroots effort relies on the story seeming "universal" within an Asian American space. All of this is making me think of the undergraduate community here on campus and their attempt to promote this film through a grassroots effort that universalizes BLT as "an Asian American moment," when I find little of myself in it. At the same time, these kids are wholly ignorant of the diversity of the Asian American experience, how class has colored their understanding of all this, etc. I just think that a lot of the grassroots stuff has to do with us supporting an Asian American moment rather than an Asian American cast. I am totally convinced that the power of this film is that, in the long view, it will (hopefully) be one of many representations of Asian bodies on screen. Which is why I hope I'm not coming down too hard on it. What really provokes me more is the community-by-convenience that comes together around it, which, again, is not Justin's fault.
OW: I think what you're saying is that you're concerned that, in celebrating the movie as creating this "moment," we're seeing it as some universal portrayal of what Asian Americans are "really like," rather than seeing it as a fictional creation that reflects a very small slice of the greater community's diversity. Is that about right?
HH: I should have just said that! I wonder what politicizes or radicalizes people, and what the process ultimately means. My fear -- and I've been told that I'm a pretty pessimistic dude -- is that this film will politicize Asian Americans in a way that obscures a deeper understanding of diversity and representation. It isn't just good because we did it, and because we did it this one way, doesn't mean there aren't other, equally valid ways of doing it. I do, however, appreciate BLT for being complicated in that way. The characters are all rather morally ambiguous.
OW: Not to get all "cultural studies" here, but it's what Stuart Hall writes when he's talking about the end of the "essential black subject." To paraphrase, it means we stop accepting the logic that black = good. In this case, we shouldn't get behind BLT just because it's a big Asian American film that could cross over. Or at least, if we do get behind it, we should realize that it's not the be-all and end-all of representing Asian American experiences. Do you feel that's how the grassroots campaign has treated the film?
HH: I do, and I would care less if the community showed this much dedication to other, equally deserving films. It's as though the motivation for all this is MTV's presence. While I understand the importance of MTV, I also think it's important that we support art, criticism, and study at all levels. Working with students at the university, I'm sort of surprised at how much more important supporting this MTV-approved film/moment is than supporting some broke local performer who comes to campus and shares [his or her] art. I hope people come away with an open-ended sense of their identity and community, since the film itself is working toward that end. I also hope that people support this film in all ways possible because, as artists, Justin and the cast definitely deserve it. This is the beginning of something great.