Justin Lin Turns Asian Americans Into Real, Live Human Beings
Better Luck Tomorrow, the new film by Justin Lin, is the comedic and tragic story of a group of ambitious Asian American high school kids in suburbia who have just one goal: to gain acceptance into the prestigious Ivy League schools. Ben (Parry Shen) is our main character, who, aside from his near-perfect grades and S.A.T. scores, is part of the Academic Decathlon team, plays on the JV basketball team, does community service, and has a part time job.
It all seems so perfect. But his tunnel vision, this need to succeed, leads to trouble when his equally smart and overachieving friend Daric (Roger Fan) coaxes him into making him a cheat sheet… for $50.00. This turns into a business, which leads him, along with Daric, and other academically adept friends, Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) and Han (Sung Kang), to far worse "businesses" such as dealing drugs, and stealing computers to sell on the street.
Whoa. What's going on here? Where's our model minority? Where are our scientists? Our martial artists?
Let's just say times-- they're a changing.
I'm not saying Asian Americans are becoming criminals; I'm saying the face of Asian America is more than what the media presents us to be, and maybe, finally, it's being exhibited.
When Better Luck Tomorrow was first screened at Sundance, a man in the audience, stood up and angrily, accusingly, questioned Lin: "How could you, despite your talented cast and great production values, make such a bleak, negative, amoral film? What kind of a portrait is this of Asian Americans? Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?"
On one hand, he makes a point. Since there is so little media coverage of Asian Americans in the first place, why put even more negative ideas about us out there? Won't it just propagate more stereotypes? On the other hand, how can previous equally limiting stereotypes be eradicated without bringing forth new ideas about Asian Americans?
And it's not that Better Luck Tomorrow does not employ stereotypes either (i.e. the ambitious and intelligent Asian kid.) It's just that they are juxtaposed against something completely un-Asian (i.e. criminal activity.) And this, apparently, is wrong.
In the same article from which I gained the quote from the Sundance festival,
Roger Ebert, the most well known film critic of our day, quotes Chris Eyre, a Native American filmmaker: "For 100 years," he said, "American Indians have played the same roles in movies. Either savages or spiritual peoples who exist on some mystical plane. It is time to let us just simply be people."
One could easily argue that it's been the same story for Asian Americans as well. It is truly time to let us just simply be people…
So what is my point? Well, for one, Better Luck Tomorrow is a brilliant, provocative, shocking, ground-breaking, and innovative film that uses set stereotypes to pervade others. But above all, it is an extremely important piece of work, for various reasons, on various levels… and no one says it better that Roger Ebert:
"For years filmmakers have tiptoed around the sensibilities of some ethnic groups, afraid to offend. Maybe the tiptoeing is the real offense. Until Indians, Asians and African Americans are shown with the same moral complexity as white characters, they are being short-changed, stereotyped, closed off from the full range of human response."
And I'm thinking that's the bottom line…