In director Justin Lin‘s second feature Better Luck Tomorrow four Asian-American high school students in California get involved in crime and come undone. The difference between these four boys and the boys in Martin Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), the current model for all such movies, and in the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993), is that Lin’s boys are examples of what has led Asian-Americans to be called the “model minority.” They are so disciplined that doing well at school–in class, on standardized tests, in extracurricular clubs, and at part-time jobs in addition–is easy, natural. Earnest, open-faced Ben (Parry Shen), the movie’s narrator, looks like a straight-A student and guides us through his regimen of activities, official and unofficial (memorizing a new word every day, shooting 200 freeshots), intended to land him in the Ivy League. Even Virgil (Jason Tobin), Ben’s skinny-goofy sidekick and the kind of kid who can barely keep a lid on his horniness and turbulent resentment, is an academic standout. But doing well leaves them bored, and fails to express their adolescent hormonal urges. Sports might do that, but though Ben has hustled to get on the basketball team, everyone suspects the Coach put him on as a token, and in any case he never gets to play. Daric (Roger Fan), a tall, cool organizer, writes an article for the school newspaper about this and protestors start coming to the games. As a result of this minor stir Ben quits the team; soon he’s writing cheat sheets for Daric at $50 a pop.
At first their crimes are in the model-minority vein–cheat sheets and, to a lesser extent, figuring out how to return computer equipment and keep it, too. Along with Virgil’s cousin Han (Sung Kang; the least developed character), they join Daric’s “academic decathlon” team, which then becomes the center of operations for more conventional criminal, and generally sociopathic, activities. The joke is that although they use academic decathlon meetings for planning crimes and unhinged partying, they’re still a championship team.
Menace II Society had sociological underpinnings; the boys came from a stratum of African-American society in which disruption of socializing human relations is the normal state of affairs. Their lives were so hopelessly disorganized that crime didn’t represent that much of a slide. Mean Streets was the opposite–the Italian-American boys followed an older generation into crime, which had the formality of small business in their circle. Mean Streets is far more than a sociological dramatization, but in both pictures you understood that the moviemakers were showing you situations with some statistical validity.
That’s not so clear in Better Luck Tomorrow. Lin is highly conscious of having made the first Asian-American film to be picked up for distribution, and he talks about the four boys and their criminal life as if he were documenting a social phenomenon, for instance in this 27 December 2001 interview with AsianAmericanFilm.com:
“Better Luck Tomorrow” is really exploring the whole youth culture of today, specifically Asian American, but also just the general mentality of teenagers today. I mean, I work with teenagers, I grew up in the 80s, and already it’s very different, the mentality. You go to suburbia, you look at upper middle class kids, and through the media they’ve literally adopted urban gangsta mentality…. Specifically it’s very interesting when you put it within the context of Asian American males. I mean, what’s more empowering than being a gangsta with a gun? I don’t think I’m doing justice to it, but that was the theme that I really wanted to explore, about the fact that [teens] don’t have the patience to search for things and so [they] start adopting things and then potentially this identity could swallow [them]….
What we see, however, doesn’t feel real. It’s highly detailed, and in that sense technically realistic, as are the performances (by an accomplished set of actors, including Karin Anna Cheung as the girl Ben likes, and John Cho, who has a wonderful face for the movies, full of fascinating, inchoate cross-currents, as Ben’s rival), but I still felt that Lin was working something out in his head rather than in any California town.
Where, for instance, are the parents? In one scene Virgil gets upset thinking about what his dad will do when he hears about his son’s behavior, but we never see the father or hear what happened. Likewise, the academic decathlon team never meets with a faculty member and attends the championship meet in Las Vegas without a chaperone. Lin may talk about the pressures on teens in the real world, but Better Luck Tomorrow is a romance that, I’m guessing, isn’t fully separable from his feelings about himself. (In this 2 April 2003 interview with Asia Source he says of himself in high school: “I was the rebellious kid. I hated being labeled. I was this short Asian guy on the varsity team and eagle scouts. It’s funny because it was good I did all these activities but I did them for the wrong reasons. I just wanted to prove people wrong.”) It may sound like I’m knocking the movie, but this half-emerged quality is actually what makes it interesting and coherent, and enables it to avoid the squishiness of an autobiographical coming-of-age film.
I would further guess that Lin’s concern with the images of Asian men in American movies led him as an artist more than his concern for Asian-American teens in the world. Asian male characters have been sages (detectives, such as Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan, and kung fu masters, such as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) in the positive mode; and mysterious, sly, manipulators, such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the Chinese brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in the negative); stuttering comic relief (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles (1984)); peasants; house servants; and, of course, during World War II, sneaky, cruel “yellow monkeys.”
All these types are outside the range of most lead roles played by dramatic movie stars. Generally speaking, the harder a minority’s struggle for equality in our society, the more restricted the types of characters they’ve played in our movies. Thus, Irish- and Italian-American characters could regularly display the full moral spectrum of passion and self-assertion long before Jewish, black, and Asian-American characters could. (Though you have to recall that the moviemaking industry, the average star who wants above all to be liked, and the audience for pop entertainment have all played a part in keeping all forms of complexity out of our movies.)
At the same time, the image of Asian men wasn’t as desexualized as that of Jews and blacks. However, with the same kind of prurient-racist projection that you saw in the treatment of the black rapist in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), the most sexual Asian-American male type was the predator, such as Sessue Hayakawa’s blackmailer in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), or, more often, a warlord threatening a white woman, such as Warner Oland in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), Nils Asther in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and Mike Mazurki in John Ford’s Seven Women (1966). Some of these movies are terrific entertainments, but just the fact that the majority of the characters have been played by non-Asians indicates they haven’t been any bonanza for the race.
(While we recognize the perversity of Hollywood in the legendary miscasting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), we also have to recognize the perversity of fate in distributing talent and acknowledge that John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock (1955; showing this Saturday on Turner Classic Movies at 6 pm), a melodrama about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, without a single major Asian character, is a better movie than Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise (1990), an epic treatment of the same splotch on American history, with a large Asian cast.)
The juxtaposition of Better Luck Tomorrow with Mean Streets and Menace II Society is especially relevant because Italian-American men and African-American men have both found ways to express full-blooded masculinity as performers in American pop culture, Italians in music and sports and movies, and blacks in sports and music. Jewish-American men, members of an earlier model minority, had a problem similar to that of Asians. They did at least have an outlet in comedy, but one that presented them as harmless neuters, except when it presented them as burlesque satyrs–either infantile (Danny Kaye) or grotesque (Groucho Marx), or both (Jerry Lewis).
This was the situation that fueled Philip Roth‘s great comic outburst of a novel Portnoy’s Complaint: Portnoy feels that being trapped as the son in a Jewish mother joke in one stroke emasculates him and prevents this mutilation from having any tragic force. Portnoy feels diminished by the very nice-boy image that made Jews assimilable into the larger society, and his anguish is inescapably comic–even he presents it that way.
Lin seems to be struggling with a similar diminishment of the Asian-American male in the pop imagination. Better Luck Tomorrow is not as original as Portnoy’s Complaint. Except for those aspects specific to the model minority blessing/burden, almost every episode and character type has been done elsewhere with other ethnic groups. (In addition, Ben’s action at the climax exceeds what we’ve seen building up in him.) Lin does avoid the liberal trap of making the boys unbelievably virtuous victims, avoids, in fact, all melodrama. In the Asia Source interview he says, “I don’t want people to think of them strictly in terms of good or bad. These characters are just kids who have made bad decisions.” What’s interesting is that in the gap between the fresh details of the story and the shopworn incidents, you sense something that Lin hasn’t been able to resolve. I felt as if Lin were not showing the criminal path these boys go down with a liberal’s dismay, but fantasizing about going down it.
He’s not a flagrant fantasist, which may be why the movie hasn’t got the attention it deserves. The movie falls between the I-know-I’m-a-sinner flamboyance of Mean Streets, which is so much bigger an imaginative experience than its sociological grounding, and the responsible probing that Lin claims in interviews was his goal. Lin may be caught in the trap for Asian-American men that he wanted to dramatize–a fear of asserting his identity without regard to the implications. He steers clear of the truly vicious, post-Malcolm X attitude that oppression justifies any response, but neither does he seem to have full access as an artist to what’s driving him. The good news from an aesthetic point-of-view is that it isn’t readily articulable themes that drive Lin, but expression. The bad news is that the expression is obstructed.
The best scene in Better Luck Tomorrow shows our four young men just after a party where they overreacted to ethnic slurs with brutal violence. They’re riding in their car next to a carful of Chicanos, young men with a well-known culture of machismo, who are openly carrying guns. Nothing happens, and we can’t hear what the Chicanos are saying in their car, and we’re not even sure to what extent the Asian guys, their heads swirling from the incident at the party, are aware of the other car or what they think about the Chicanos. Lin masterfully lets the moment float–masterfully because it’s floating in his brain fluids. In this one scene the movie isn’t half inside his head, it’s all the way in there, and the audience, too. I like Lin for being able to fantasize without losing sight of who he is, but it gives most of the movie an in-and-out quality–equal parts novel and romance–that muffles the experience.
People don’t always know where their own talent lies. Again, in the Asia Source interview Lin states, “I wanted to explore [teen violence] even though I don’t have the answer, but bringing up the questions might bring us closer to it.” We don’t have to take this at face value. He may flutter like a sparrow for journalists but the movie’s good to the extent he swoops like a hawk. Lin’s direction of Better Luck Tomorrow doesn’t ask questions at all; it responds to a widespread perception in a personal way. Which is even better. Maybe that’s why there’s no resolution to Ben’s story. Lin’s fantasy isn’t over; he’s only at the beginning of his career.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.Powered by Sidelines