How Better Luck Tomorrow Argued for Its Existence, 15 Years Ago

Justin Lin’s indie about a group of bad teenagers in suburbia hit theaters in 2003, complicating the question of Asian American representation in Hollywood in ways that still resonate deeply today.

MTV Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

In the opening scene of Better Luck Tomorrow, the camera pans over the faces of two teens as they lie baking in the sun, in some backyard. Ben, played by Parry Shen, has soft, boyish features; Virgil, played by Jason Tobin, is all angles. Watching the movie in a theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, I remember noticing the way the light caught their cheeks and hairlines and noses—the faces of young Asian American actors—with what felt like a radical sort of affection. As the scene moved on, introducing viewers to the strange double-world of Justin Lin’s film, in which the cutthroat domain of teenage suburbia takes on the tenor of a mobster story in bitingly dark ways, my mind lingered on that light, on those faces. That visual, the unwavering love the camera gave Shen and Tobin, was significant, I knew.

There’s a similar moment near the end of Crazy Rich Asians, the movie based on Kevin Kwan’s satirical novel that’s exuberantly storming the box office and furthering an ongoing conversation about representation in Hollywood. Constance Wu’s NYU professor protagonist, Rachel Chu, exhausted by the machinations of her Singaporean boyfriend Nick’s powerful family, lies in bed with her mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua. The light glints off their faces as they share a moment of relief from the melodrama around them. The camera is unhurried; the moment is otherwise unremarkable. Of all the scenes in this scene-filled movie, this is the one that got me thinking back to Better Luck Tomorrow, and to the subtle shock of transgression I felt watching it 15 years ago. For me, that was the film.

Better Luck Tomorrow, now streaming on HBO Go, follows a group of teenagers in Southern California as they navigate high school. Ben and Virgil spend their days worrying about SAT scores and perfecting their free throws and checking out girls; they also scam stores out of computer equipment through a buy-and-return scheme, with the help of Virgil’s cousin Han (the always magnetic Sung Kang, of the Fast and the Furious movies). Along with the school’s manipulative valedictorian, Daric (Roger Fan), the teens get involved with a cheat-sheet ring and dip into drug dealing; things spin out until a nearly anarchic violence takes over. (The film features an early turn from an already matinee-idol-y John Cho, too.) If some stories are praised for their universal themes, Better Luck Tomorrow was something a little different: a funny, grungy homage to the unique tensions of suburban Asian America, a love letter that was torn at the edges and scrunched up a bit.

The movie is, of course, better known in some circles for the discussion that occurred off the screen. This had something to do with the plot—Asian American boys doing bad things and flouting that pernicious model-minority stereotype, in ways that infuriated some and had others cheering—and also, of course, with the film’s very existence: It was a project with a predominantly Asian American cast, helmed (and co-written) by an Asian American director. And it is, too, the movie that instigated the infamous moment at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 when a critic stood up during a Q&A with the cast and asked, “Why … make a film so empty and amoral about Asian Americans?” And that then saw Roger Ebert, also from the audience, strongly dissent, pointing out the double standard implicit in that question: “Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ … Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to represent ‘their people.’” It was a moment that most Asian American cultural critics remember well, for the vociferousness with which Ebert defended the right of a filmmaker of color to make art without bowing to the demands of respectability politics.

Better Luck Tomorrow’s brash portrayal of Asian American teenagers’ lives may have brought to mind Kids, which predated it by eight years. The films were similarly unvarnished, but Lin’s was a more self-aware effort. How could it not be? The director, who wrote the script with Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez, was fresh out of film school; he would have understood the significance of training the camera on the actors he chose (and had to fight for). After all: Later in 2003 saw the release of Lost in Translation, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and The Last Samurai, all movies that, in their respective ways, used their Asian milieus as foils for their wandering, revenge-seeking, and savioresque white protagonists. Within the context of those much bigger works, the story of Better Luck Tomorrow—an indie that opened on 13 screens (eventually playing on nearly 400) and brought in $3.8 million domesticallyfeels both much smaller, and undeniably significant.

That’s because, yes, the movie placed at its center the lives of people who vanishingly rarely appear in any complicated way on-screen (in a distinctly American, not Asian, setting, to boot), and then took viewers on a rambunctious journey through those characters’ neuroses and skullduggery. It also did so in a culturally and geographically specific way: Better Luck Tomorrow was explicitly Ben and Virgil’s story. It wasn’t an Asian American film so much as it was a film about Asian Americans screwing around, and screwing up. As such, it was about identity, to a striking degree. It was, notably, also about Southern California. Better Luck Tomorrow turns the landscape of Orange County, where it was filmed, creepily chill. Tidy residential streets and car trunks and the parking lots of big-box retail stores all show up, with the muted middle-class comforts of suburbia transforming into something more sinister via the teens’ actions.

Key to the film is the narration that Ben provides. It’s lovely, full of knowing lines about double identities, parental expectations, and getting boxed into an identity you didn’t quite choose. (“I guess it just felt good to do things that I couldn’t put on my college application.”) It also tugs at a distinctly rebellious thread, born of frustration, of playing a world that tends to see you only one way, and no other. (A girl at a party: So, what are you guys? Virgil: A club. Girl: Oh, like a math club or something?) The white world that exists around the boys may see them as nerds or benchwarmers, but at no point in the camera’s eyes are the boys ever the other. The marginalized world is the primary one. If Lin had cast Macaulay Culkin in the lead role, as he was asked to do, it would have been, needless to say, a completely different film.

MTV Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

The boys’ story is told with a low-key, cheery sort of tribalism that is boosted by the efforts of the cast. Shen’s narration as Ben is the film’s introspective glue. Tobin is a joy as Virgil—hotheaded and inappropriate and vulnerable, full of posturing and emotions that are roiling below the surface. Fan is smoothly arrogant (with a hint of desperation) as Daric, while Kang perfects the role of the baddie oppah type. Cho, as the snooty Steve, expresses more with his eyes than the script ever requires that he verbalize. Karin Anna Cheung as Ben’s crush, Stephanie, is given less to work with but tries mightily nonetheless, with a stray observation of hers arguably summing up the movie: “Excuse me, guys. Too much testosterone.” The interconnectedness of these characters, as they latch onto the thrill of bending the rules and getting away with it, charges up the screen. It’s hard not to feel an accompanying sense of adrenaline when Ben observes with a succinct poetry: “Rumors about us came and went fast and furious.”

Centering these misfit Asian American boys as they impetuously try on different identities (sometimes uncomfortably, often crassly), shift loyalties, and eventually spiral out of control is an act of vision and tenderness. It’s a filmmaking choice that brings to mind the Situationist-era slogan: I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires. To tell a story in Hollywood is, in some sense, to anoint someone’s desires: the desire to find love, the desire to find oneself, the desire to craft one’s own image. This is the blunt power of Crazy Rich Asians, as it fills the big screen with a cast of Asian descent to tell its classic fairy-tale story. Better Luck Tomorrow does the same for its own genre of angsty, coming-of-age hijinks films. This is, too, what those light-filled scenes I noticed—in which the camera treats Asian American faces as worthy of attention and warmth and time—were building toward.

In the early 2000s, the very existence of Better Luck Tomorrow helped to turn a lens on the movie-criticism community, showing it to be underprepared for such a project, in a way that today is markedly less true. Of course, no film ever fully or unilaterally paves the way for others after it, but neither is any film sui generis. If, in the end, a work’s impact is measured by how at least some of its viewers remember it, Better Luck Tomorrow created space—a small space, that was also very big.