May 1, 2003

The More Things Change

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Better Luck Tomorrow attempts to debunk the Asian “model minority” myth by showing its cast of characters as being much more than the limited ethnic stereotypes of “studious” and “submissive” people suggest. Rather than using the stereotype as a stepping stone to show how the complexities of the Asian American extends beyond typecast labels, the film seems to be in danger of reinforcing a different kind of stereotype. This one falls on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, in which it fuels “yellow scare” suspicions by portraying Asian Americans as an exclusive group who gang up to wreak havoc on others outside of their tight-knit inner circle.

It certainly doesn’t help that the film is produced by MTV, glamorizing the life of excess and fast living of the thugged-out Asian by setting it to a hip soundtrack of raging techno beats. The film doesn’t seem too concerned with showing all the sides of the Asian American experience, such as the pressures to succeed or the struggle that comes with being caught between two different cultures. It does touch upon on how good grades bring you only so much gratification, and on how one’s efforts and merit gets completely negated when you are chosen to be the representative “token” minority. But the characters and their actions don’t seem to be really driven or affected by these frustrations, so it seems pointless to have incorporated these few cultural issues. They get lost in the push to pump up the testosterone level of the film, because focusing on cultural issues is probably too narrow an appeal, so the more universe tyast and the Furious action-flick approach prevails.

The shenanigans of this Asian Honor Roll mafia crime ring is seen through the eyes of Ben Manibag. Ben is initially introduced as a nice, tame kid. He excells in academics, extracurriculars, and even basketball. But this routine, controlled, road to success just doesn’t cut it. To bring some excitement into their lives, he and his friend Virgil Hu, along with Virgil’s cousin Han, live on the edge by engaging in small-time criminal activity. Things get complicated when Daric Loo, another high-achieving Asian student at their school, ups the ante on their antics by inducting them into the world of hard drugs, sex, and an academic crime ring.

Ben soon wants out of the gang, and the fear-inducing foursome’s activities temporarily come to an end. Then pretty cheerleader Stephanie Vandergosh becomes Ben’s lab partner. Ben is head over heels in love with her, but Steve Choe, Stephanie’s boyfriend, is standing in his way. He’s tough competition, probably impossible to beat. What enrages Ben and the others is that Steve knows he’s the big man on campus and rubs it in their faces that the coveted Stephanie is his, and not their, trophy girlfriend. Ben and his friends then decide to carry out one last mastermind plan of attack to teach Steve who the big dogs really are.

It is refreshing to see Asian Americans tackle roles that extend beyond the nerd, the kungfu warrior, or an unmemorable supporting character. The acting is extremely good, especially from Parry Shen and Jason J. Tobin, who respectively play the parts of Ben and Virgil. However, the main problem lies in where exactly the motivation to be badass criminals comes from. It could be that they’re stifled or bored by their predictable academic successes, and there’s some thrill in being daredevil delinquents. And the possibilities of emasculation by society or oppressive parents driving the boys over the edge aren’t addressed either. Their activities don’t seem justified, and it just paints a disturbing picture of ungrateful, spoiled kids who play with fire just because they can.

It’s also obvious that the script was written by men, because Stephanie’s character isn’t developed as well as it could be. They do make an effort to portray her as an intelligent and headstrong woman, yet there are many loose ends. If she’s so sharp and shrewd, why is she with Steve? Why does the film introduce her as an Asian adopted by a Caucasian family and not do anything with it? The only thing he seems to offer is a nice ride. Despite being a driving force in the film, Stephanie’s frustrations or motivations aren’t really shown. The only inner struggle she really seems to have is deciding whether to date Steve or Ben. In the end, she’s mostly a reason for machismo activity to continue.

There’s no doubt that Luck is a breakthrough film with the potential to captivate audiences. The talented actors will get more exposure, and if the movie succeeds, perhaps more Asian-interest films will get more airplay. It’s just too bad that complex cultural issues got lost in the midst of MTV-syle sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll: better luck with that tomorrow.

Archived article by Sherry Jun