Better Luck Tomorrow
Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Roger Fan, Sung Kang, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung
Directed By :
Justin Lin

Synopsis: The film starts off by introducing the main character Ben (Shen), and his best friend Virgil (Tobin), two Asian overachievers in a California high school. The opening scene is odd, but what you don't realize how odd until later. The rest of the film is spent exploring the events that lead up to that scene, and illustrating the significance of it. We meet Virgil's cousin Han (Kang), who is a total delinquent, opposite to Virgil in every way. We're also introduced to Daric (Fan), Ben's chief rival in the intellectual community. We're taken into the everyday life of Ben as he strives towards college and tries to make his way through high school. He has everything you could want in one sense, but is stymied in trying to be a basketball star and get the cheerleader girlfriend he wants. The film shows us how sometimes those with the most given to them get disillusioned, and seek control through self-destructive behavior.

Evaluation: The script to the film is pretty tight. While there aren't many 'Wow!' moments in the film, the whole movie is just of a high quality. The film doesn't advertise that it's based off real events, so I didn't know what to expect exactly. I found the film to be very unpredictable, but highly relatable at the same time. If you were ever a privileged kid at high school, or if you just knew about them, you can relate to the fact that these kids use their good grades and extracurricular activities as a cover for their delinquent behavior. Sometimes the little angels get away with murder. This is taken to a bit of an extreme in the film, but for the most part, the story is highly realistic, and captures that intangible believability so many high school films lack. I identified a lot with the events in the film, and to those that found the downward spiral portrayed in the movie to be unrealistic, I can vouch for its realism. Aside from that, the film is BASED ON A TRUE STORY. The most unbelievable aspects of this film are TRUE.

While I don't know that any of the actors in the film are breakout stars, as a whole I found this ensemble to be high quality all the way. Every character is a little different, but they all relate to each other on a similar level…that's hard to pull off. The force behind this film, Justin Lin, obviously has a bright future ahead of him in film. The directing reminded me of other indie-feeling films (like Go) the shake up a character driven story with directing techniques (slow-mo, fast-mo, time lapse, steadicam, odd angles, etc.) This can be a bad thing however if not with restraint, and lots of young directors bury the substance of their films in an over-abundance of style. Here however, it works to great effect. I also really appreciated how Ben's efforts to expand his vocabulary essential divide the film into chapters corresponding to the word Ben is learning. It was an element in Clerks that I appreciated, though it's less obvious here.

Who Will This Appeal To?: This film got a bit of hype for being an all-Asian producer/writer/director/cast. This in turn brought both positive and negative word of mouth based on people thinking the movie didn't live up to the hype, or being offended by the film, by its portrayal of Asian-Americans, by its 'realism', you name it. Bottom line is that the Asian aspect of this movie is not that significant. I don't believe its main effort was to be a statement on Asian stereotypes, or an effort to break them. Sure, that's an element, but it's not the focus. This story could have worked with a cast of any race. Ultimately, it's an indie movie with black humor and a bit of drama that's loosely based on real events. If that sounds appealing, you should enjoy the film.

One other warning: If you're familiar with the events from which the film is based, don't expect any kind of morality lesson. Similar to the movie Wonderland, this film doesn't attempt to preach or push any characters forward as heroes or villains, it just portrays a slice of life. Everyone has gray areas, and this film leaves the judgments to the audience.

Final Verdict: I though this was a great flick. Interesting story and characters, good directing, and an atypical ending. The film does a great job of showing how you can become overwhelmed in high school and end up swept up in events that you don't feel you have much control over. On the surface, these seem like nice kids with lots of potential, but the film shows us how many complex decisions kids face at this age, and how serious the ramifications can get. This is a great example of a film that goes against the Hollywood grain, but doesn't go out of its way to distance itself from Hollywood film-making and thus become inaccessible to casual viewing. I recommend it to everyone.

Details, details…: Though these actors are playing high school kids, many of them have previously done more physically imposing roles…Shen in Starship Troopers and doing stunt work in Game Day, Kang as a henchman in Mystery Men, Fan as a bodyguard in Rush Hour and a FBI agent in Corky Romano, and Tobin was in Gong Fu: The New Dragon.

Oh yeah, and Cho is the Asian 'MILF!' guy from the American Pie movies.

DVD: The DVD really doesn't have much on it. The video is crisp, and the audio is good quality, though there aren't many options. Commentary is included, but not really any special features or extras, not even trailers. Still, if you can find it at a decent price (under twenty bucks) this is definitely worth owning.

- - Jeff Light

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