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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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