No parents appear in Justin Lin's penetrating debut Better Luck Tomorrow, presumably because their Asian-American kids - seemingly responsible and perfectionist students at the top of their class - have earned the right to nearly limitless freedom. Their absence, however, is persistently felt, as the very freedom these privileged and gifted kids enjoy is also a detrimental form of parental neglect. Left to their own devices, overachievers Ben (Parry Shen), Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Han (Sung Kang), and Daric (Roger Fan) find that the only outlet for their increasing boredom and rampant egotism is to plunge themselves into a life of financially lucrative and dangerous hustling, theft, and drug dealing. Their cocky gambles turn them into kings of the high school castle, and as their crime spree assumes near mythic proportions - they soon become known as the "Chinese Mafia" - their sense of moral boundaries disappears like the dead body they've buried in a friend's backyard.
Lin's assured and electric tale of good kids gone bad might be just another run-of-the-mill exercise in flashy adolescent nihilism were it not for the cleverly atypical way in which he confronts the material. By setting his film in a nondescript affluent California neighborhood and focusing on Asian-American characters who have their lives totally under control, the director finds a new avenue into the rather tired realm of suburban exposes uncovering the angst and anger lying just beneath the communities' cheery and docile facades. Ben and his friends are, in some respects, stereotypical well-to-do Asian-American students: studious, motivated, passive, and anonymous amidst their predominantly white classmates. Their lives are dominated by the single-minded desire to get into a good college, and they all work furiously at participating in numerous extracurricular activities (working in hospitals, playing on the basketball team, competing on the academic decathlon team) to bolster their college applications. They're like well-oiled machines, robotically tearing through high school as if the only worthwhile goal in life is a perfect GPA and early acceptance to an Ivy League school, and their wholesomeness is humorously alluded to by Lin's use of Jerry Mathers (aka "The Beaver") as Ben's biology teacher.
Appearances are a large part of Ben's life, even if he doesn't consciously realize it. Given his acumen for academics and his interest in pulling small-time scams - at the film's beginning, he swindles a store out of hundreds of dollars of computer equipment - he's soon enlisted by über-student Daric to help write up cheat sheets for a small profit. Daric is a brash, good-looking stud who heads virtually every after-school club, and it's clear that his friendship with Ben, like virtually everything he does, is completely self-interested. Mousy Ben, eager to fit in and be seen as one of the guys, is easily seduced by Daric and his sidekick Han's penchant for risky behavior, all of which goes unpunished. As Ben acutely notes, "Good grades were our alibis, our passports to freedom."
As their reputation grows and more lucrative scams fall into their laps, the group loses all sense of proportion - stealing computers from school becomes the gateway activity to large-scale heists, lavish pseudo-orgy parties, and dealing - not to mention using - drugs. But whereas wise-cracking Virgil, cocky Daric, and laid-back tough guy Han engage in these illicit extracurricular activities as a means of quelling boredom, Ben's motives remain more complicated, centering around a desire for power and respect that isn't earned simply by getting good grades. He's eager to date his pretty lab partner Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), but her rich boyfriend Steve (John Cho) is an obstacle he can't seem to overcome. Steve, confident that Ben is no sexual or emotional threat to his and Stephanie's relationship, allows Ben to take his girlfriend to the school dance. For Ben, feelings of impotence (sexual and physical) and marginalization (he's the token Asian-American benchwarmer on the basketball team) are the motivating forces behind his behavior. To keep up with his studies, after-school commitments, and criminal undertakings, Ben begins using cocaine as a regular stimulant, and it is only after waking up on his seventeenth birthday profusely bleeding from the nose that he realizes it may be time to end the game.
Lin's keen examination of suburban ennui unabashedly plays around with common stereotypes about Asian-Americans - who, by film's end, turn out to be more typically American than Asian - and his testosterone-fueled direction gives the film a jazzy kinetic energy. When Ben and Stephanie, attending the school-sponsored dance together, continue their slow waltz around the dance floor despite the DJ's changeover from slow ballad to pounding house music, it's an adept encapsulation of how the romantic evening, for Ben, is a minor respite from his increasingly out-of-control lifestyle. Yet for all his directorial flashiness (including superimposed text over the action, rapid-fire montages, and sleek slow motion), Lin wisely recognizes the need to let his film breathe from time to time, and it is in Ben's quieter moments alone and with Stephanie that the film finds its own moral center. Ben and his friends may be convinced that the world is theirs for the taking but, as Lin's dazzling Better Luck Tomorrow expertly reveals, the price one pays for uninhibited greed and arrogance is mighty steep.
For more insight into this unique and strange little film, check out the DVD commentary track, which offers thoughts from Lin and writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez.
Painting by the numbers.