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Better Luck Tomorrow (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

'There are so many things that typify growing up in Southern California in the late '70s and early '80s. Miniature golf.'"

Better Luck Tomorrow

Director: 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 DVD Release Date: 2003-09-30

"There are so many things that typify growing up in Southern California in the late '70s and early '80s. Miniature golf. I don't know how that became the cultural hub of childhood. Growing up, that was like the place to be." Recalling their own growing up for the commentary track on Paramount's DVD of Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez, and Ernesto Foronda all bring crucial bits to form the impressive whole.

And, as they reveal in their fragments of memories -- of childhood traumas and production crises -- the film is focused on growing up, in typical and popular ways, but more profoundly, it's concerned with how growing up is misrepresented and misremembered, how all kids have to go through it on their own. The commentary by this crew (all listing their multiple jobs on this "credit card movie," from editor and director to caterer and security guard) reveals that as they were looking to reflect a common and simultaneously specific experience, they also wanted to get at what it means to "grow up."

The first scene in the movie actually shows one of the last moments in its chronology. Ben (Parry Shen) and Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) are sunning themselves in an Orange County backyard, 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 are shiny with sweat. And then, a phone rings. "Not mine," Virg says. Not Ben's either.

The boys look at each other, 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."

As this sets up the movie's interest, the scene also undermines it. The threeway commentary repeatedly reveals such thematic contradictions and, perhaps especially, the difficulties of shooting a tiny-budget film that looks like MTV would make or, in this case, want it (MTV picked up distribution after the film's splashy premiere at Sundance). "There's pros and cons to not having any money when you're making a film," Lin says, "We had five weeks to rehearse, and it was just great because we were able to play and it wasn't about memorizing the lines, it was about understanding the history, the relationships between the characters. It gets to a certain point, with each actor, where it just clicks over, and there's this understanding, and it becomes a perfect collaboration at that point."

The actors, camera crew, and designers apparently come to "that point" again and again in BLT. Lin, Marquez, and Foronda's technical discussion is consistently terrific -- they explain lens choices, rack focuses, dealing with weather, the ways that a camera move was conceived and executed, tricks for making big party scenes with only six extras (they had extras changing costumes as they literally ran from one end of a set to another, to make the party look well-populated.

Again and again, the camera careens, time-lapses, and flicks over surfaces as well as fences dividing suburban properties. Ben is the film's center, and his journey is riveting as well as horrifying. He begins 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." And 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 the rich, slightly older, and infinitely more cynical 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 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, any self. 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, beat someone to death with a bat at another -- generated controversy, and as Lin, Foronda, and Marquez point out, the scene affected everyone on the set, bringing some to tears. Though Lin says that the last scene's violence has been trimmed since Sundance, he's happy with the way it's turned out. BLT insists that such horrific acting out is another form of performance, one way the kids use to counter expectations that they'll be polite and undesiring, desexualized or feminized "Asian males." But the subversion of these stereotypes is as frightening as any imposition of stereotype -- it's more, and not enough.

Most compellingly, the film offers insights into intra-community class and gender dynamics; Ben and Steve's competition for Stephanie layers such tensions. 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.

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