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Preface: This review was originally written for AsianAvenue.com but no longer exists on their site. As you can see with both this and the Popmatters review (see below), there's much more ambivalence about the film now that it actually came out and I think that's a fair bargain. Most of my critiques of the film existed when I first saw it but I was more invested in helping promote its wider release first before pointing out where I felt it fell short.
See also: Better Luck Tomorrow review for Popmatters.com.
THE REVIEW (in full after jump).
Tomorrow Arrives Today
By Oliver Wang
Within Asian American cinema, there’ve been films labeled “important” films, but the label usually hides the fact that they’re not very good. There have been “important” Asian American films that help the community articulate its silenced issues or gain ground in Hollywood, but to be brutally honest, many – if not most – have suffered formally. In other words, they lack basic cinematic qualities such as interesting writing, compelling acting, efficient editing, etc.
I’ve heard people remark, “oh, it was pretty good for an Asian American film”, which is about as damning with faint praise as you can get. At the same time, I understand the feeling. There are many decent films from our community – Lin’s first effort Shopping For Fangs or Mina Shum’s Double Happiness were both good movies, just to name two from the last ten years. But in terms of unequivocally great films, that list is far, far shorter. Chan Is Missing still occupies the top slot, which is sadly ironic since that film ushered in the era of Asian American features but no one since has been able to top Wang’s brilliant mesh of quirky, genre-twisting narrative, true-to-life characters and provocative social commentary.
Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow is the first film in this long, lonely hiatus that’s generated enough hype to represent a potential sea-change. Sundance patrons, including Roger Ebert, loved it. MTV Films signed it. The buzz is deafening and much of it is well-earned., There’s never been an Asian American film like it. This tale of overachievers turned amateur criminals takes every image of Asian American teens we’ve ever seen, pushes it over, and then gleefully stomps on whatever’s left. It probably sounds antiquated and academic to talk about positive or negative“media images” in 2003, but after two decades of generation gap and immigrant story films, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a movie that doesn’t feel like an Asian American Studies lesson. Instead, BLT profiles a train wreck of masculinity issues that Asian American men struggle with: self-image, aggression, sexuality, privilege.
All of this makes Better Luck Tomorrow a compelling film, an important film but I’ve struggled to determine whether or not BLT is a great film – by Asian American or anyone’s standards. In all honesty, the film suffers from many of the formal qualities I noted earlier. In the film festival version I saw (which is slightly different than the theatrical release), the storytelling felt sluggish and uneven, in need of tighter, snappier editing. I thought some of the acting was superb, especially Jason Tobin as Virgil, a hyperactive firecracker that Tobin plays with an impressive blend of abandon and vulnerability. On the other hand, Parry Shen plays Ben, the lead protagonist, but he can’t generate the kind of charisma his character needs to earn our empathy. Likewise, I felt like Karin Anna Cheung’s role as Stephanie Vandergosh – the lead and lone female in this mostly male brigade – was wasted as her character was thinly written and more a placeholder than genuine person.
Of course, as many have noted, if BLT aspires to be a rollicking teens-gone-bad film, who really cares about the pacing or character arc? The thing is though, I don’t think BLT is meant to be the yellow-ized version of Larry Clark’s Bully or Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction. It aspires to be a thinking person’s film. Lin does a marvelous job of leaving us feeling complicit for enjoying the spiraling rampage that unfolds before us. The film’s embrace of amorality isn’t flaunted as an act of pride but is meant to genuinely provoke debate and dialogue. Some argue that because BLT doesn’t deal in any of the usual “Asian American issues”, i.e. identity politics, parental-child conflict, etc. it’s actually a color-blind/race-less film but that’s far from the truth. That Lin wrote the film with an all-Asian cast in mind is not just charity for hard-luck actors but a deliberate attempt to rattle popular perceptions of Asian American personalities.
I’m left to say that BLT is a film well worth watching – which I plan to again and I encourage everyone to do the same. This is an unprecedented opportunity for Asian American film to step forward into the mainstream. Moreover, it forces everyone – Asian American or otherwise – to reconsider what we know of one another and ourselves and that’s an achievement in itself. In saying this, I don’t ignore the movie’s flaws and I don’t think this, or any film for that matter, is worthy of uncritical support. Better Luck Tomorrow is, however, a film deserving of intelligent and judicious support. Indeed, this is a movie that surely expects nothing less.