Better Luck Tomorrow. Paramount Classics presents a film directed by Justin Lin. Written by Lin, Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated R (for violence, drug use, language and sexuality). Starring Parry Shen, Jason T. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung.

Better Luck Tomorrow

The pressure to succeed in high school can be overwhelming to students. In Justin Lin's sophomore effort (he previously directed 1997's Shopping For Fangs), Better Luck Tomorrow, this pressure drives the students to cheating, drugs, and eventually murder.

Most teen movies (the genre Better Luck Tomorrow technically belongs in) are either formulaic romantic comedies or the cinema equivalent of a television soap opera. Better Luck Tomorrow is neither of these. It deals with much more substantial and important issues than what would normally expected. Lin knows what it's like to be a student, and he fills his film with believable characters instead of caricatures. For this reason, we feel a strange emotional bond to these troubled (and, perhaps, amoral) teens.

The main character (because neither "hero" nor "protagonist" is appropiate) is Ben (Parry Shen), a student whose lone goal is to get into the best college he possibly can. He gets all "A"s, is in just about every extra-curricular activity possible, and his SAT's are a mere sixty points short of perfect. To remedy the SAT situation, Ben studies a new word every day. It is with these words that Lin structures the different sections of the movie.

The movie opens with Ben and his friend Virgil (Jason T. Tobin) laying in the back yard, sunbathing. A cell phone goes off. Both Ben and Virgil check their phones; neither of their's is ringing. Listening closer, they rush to a newly layed piece of sod and tear it back, digging through the dirt to find a worm-eaten hand protruding from the dirt. But they seem to have expected it.

Now the film cuts "six months earlier", to Ben's voice-over. The voice-over is superbly written and acted, and stands next to Adaptation and Fight Club as one of the finest voice-overs I've heard in recent cinema. Ben and his clique of overachieving Asian-Americans are making money through a clever ploy that involves purchasing expensive computer equipment at one store, and then using the receipt to get refunds at another store. Along with Ben and Virgil, this group includes Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang) and Daric (Roger Fan), who is the captain of pretty much every academic club at the school.

Ben does not have a girlfriend, but has his eyes on his lab partner, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). However, Stephanie already has a (cheating) boyfriend, Steve (John Cho). Not that he doesn't try. Because of Steve's aversion to school events, Ben is able to take Stephanie to the Winter Formal, where they begin to share feelings for one another.

However, Ben's group is quickly becoming notorious at the school (they are known as the "Chinese Mafia", although the nation of origin for many of the students is ambiguous). The computer equipment scam is just the beginning. They start running a school-wide cheating ring, with one student stealing tests, and Ben answering the questions for fifty dollars a sheet. Soon, the group turns to drugs, and doing jobs for anyone that asks, as long as the price is right. However, greed is not the primary reason for these acts. They add excitement to an otherwise monotonous existence.

Despite the acts of its leads, Lin's screenplay never attempts to condemn the acts of the students. In fact, the audience may start to feel for Ben.The climax is shocking not because it is unexpected (it is partially described in the opening scene), but because the way it happens is the least predictable (although it is completely believable). Also, despite the gritty subject matter, there are moments of humor; some scenes had me laughing harder than many full-blown comedies released these days.

Although the characters are never condemned by the movie, all of them suffer from their decisions. Ben feels guilt, and the rest of the clique also must deal with it, whether directly or indirectly. The ending is largely open-ended, and the audience leaves with many questions to ponder long after the credits have rolled.

The performances are some of the best I've seen from young actors in several years. The teens, many of whom have only had minor roles in the past, make each of their characters believable and sympathetic. Perry Shen is superb as the "normal" child, the kind of kid who would never be expected of the acts he and his group carry out. Jason T. Tobin plays Virgil as a kid teetering violently on the edge, but who has great guilt at what he has done. Roger Fan is an exceptionally charismatic actor - he oozes charm, and makes us sorta like Daric, even though we have no reason to. Sung Kang's Han is understated - a quiet, brooding individual who cares much more for Virgil than he lets on. And newcomer Karin Anna Cheung establishes herself as a talented new face. We never have any trouble believing that a student like Ben would pine for Stephanie.

Despite how the marketing may make Better Luck Tomorrow seem, it is not a traditional teenage movie. It is an exceptionally written and directed movie that should make any audience member young or old think. MTV is hoping for a large turnout of high school students, but if you enjoy intelligent and thought-provoking movies, Better Luck Tomorrow is definitely one to see.

© 2003 Matt Noller