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Better Luck Tomorrow

Never underestimate an overachiever

can count the number of Asian American lead roles on one hand (independent movies shown only at film fests notwithstanding). And that includes the stereotyped ones where the girl walks around being all "exotic" and the guy runs around like a fumbling buffoon. That is a sad state of affairs.

So when I saw the film Better Luck Tomorrow I couldn't believe my eyes; I was witnessing cinematic history. Here is a movie in which all of the roles consist of Asians whose characters are complex and whose storyline isn't some kind of spoof. Where were the martial arts shenanigans? Where were the funny accents? Where were the exchange students wearing pocket protectors? Where was Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles?

Nowhere - director and co-writer by Justin Lin killed them all off. The tagline for Better Luck Tomorrow reads: "Never underestimate an overachiever". It couldn't ring more true. On one level the movie plays likes your typical high school John Hughes-esque drama - except with all Asian people - in that all the characters fit into a niche. You have the chain-smoking oh-so-sexy bad boy - Han (Sung Kang), the annoying joker - Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Daric (Roger Fan) the handsome ring-leader, the rich boy that everyone hates - Steve (John Cho), Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) the popular girl who's bad at math and science and Ben (Parry Shen) the good guy - who has a good heart but is too nerdy and self conscious to actually get the girl. But as you were forewarned - don't underestimate this flick.

Despite the pre-assigned seemingly cookie-cutter roles abound in most teenage movies, the characters here almost immediately veer off the road. You follow them through their senior year in high school in the anesthetizing suburbs of Orange County as they surf their way through Ivy League college apps, near perfect SAT scores, outstanding extracurricular activities and all those other things Asian kids are supposed to do. But then you get into the nitty-gritty.

While Ben and his misguided A.D.D. poster-boy buddy Virgil seem like your typical overachievers, they don't need to be Mr. High School; they just simply want to get into Stanford. It's all going according to plan when Daric, their fearless Academic Olympiad leader, leads them astray. This is where Better Luck Tomorrow differentiates itself from all the other fluff out there. Instead of becoming an after-school say-no-to-drugs special in which good kids go bad and smoking pot somehow aids terrorism - these characters are both good and bad. It's a world of gray. They are smart, ambitious teenagers that are also cool. They are upstanding citizens that also partake in illegal activities.

Some people may not be able to deal with the dichotomy and may immediately point fingers accusing this film of promoting violence. I say: welcome to reality. Life isn't that simple and this film shows that.

Lin exhibits extraordinary talent for treading between these fine lines. He knows exactly where to hold back and where to let loose and go crazy. Furthermore, he somehow manages to make the academic olympiad team seem cool; and that is a difficult task indeed.

The acting only buttresses the direction. Every member of the cast turns out solid, nuanced performances. In a world where there seems to be only two types of teen flicks: the 10 Things I Hate about You's and the Scream's, this movie and its actors charter new territory. One can only hope that we will be seeing more Asian leading faces in the future, you know the ones that don't spout fake accents and whip out martial arts.


Better Luck Tomorrow
Rated R
1 hour 40 minutes

Parry Shen
Jason J. Tobin
Sung Kang
Roger Fan
John Cho