“Roger Ebert stood up in his chair to defend the film when a white guy labeled it an ‘immoral’ representation of Asian Americans,” reads an e-mail forwarded to me, an earnest if annoying attempt to get Asian Americans to sell out Better Luck Tomorrow on its opening weekend. I have several problems with the sentence, primarily with the image of Roger Ebert standing up in his chair. The consequences of forgoing the flick, I am told, will be dire: It will “give production people more ammunition not to cast us in leading roles for another fifteen years.” Seeing BLT has been positioned as a political act.
Alas: The film in question seems hardly worth the fuss. It’s a modestly involving tale of Asian American high schoolers gone ballistic, upending rote SoCal suburbia in all the usual ways: a test-cheating ring, guns and drugs, a Vegas hooker—all favorites of mine, except the cheating. Some of the tauter scenes pulsate (perhaps too much in the MTV mode), and Parry Shen, as narrating protagonist Ben, underplays deftly, especially in his early incarnation as a college-driven overachiever. (He makes the basketball squad and is a Spanish interpreter at a hospital.) But the story itself gets mired in bogus psychology and dire writing (“Having that kind of power quickly became an addiction”); after a bloody crescendo, the closing irresolution seems less Chekhovian gesture or existential endgame than authorial laziness.
A word about the title: Though Better Luck Tomorrow doesn’t resonate with what’s on-screen, it scans as a deadpan conflation of two strains of Asian/Asian American popular cinema: the overripe crossover weepie, à la the miseryfest The Joy Luck Club, and HK ultraviolence, typified by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow franchise. (One of the characters, seeing his prep-school nemesis cutting a figure, wonders: “Who does he think he is, Chow Yun-fat?”) BLT wants to use the shock tactics of the latter to escape the stereotypical immigrant songs of the former, but writer-director Justin Lin doesn’t provide an imaginative alternative, and the story gets as melodramatic as anything in Amy Tan. As coke-clogged Ben says to his fellow sociopaths: I want out.
Speaking of Asian stereotypes: In The Young Unknowns, Catherine Jelski’s numbing but effective debut, bilious struggling filmmaker Charlie (Devon Gummersall, leagues away from his My So-Called Life persona) crows about the subservience of “Asian chicks,” horrifying his production-designer girlfriend (Arly Jover), to whom he alternately proffers degrading insults and protestations of awe. The Ebonics-affecting Charlie nevertheless pales in repugnance to his loutish buddy (Eion Bailey), who breaks the nose of a sexually unresponsive model (Leslie Bibb). Though The Young Unknowns sometimes creaks like a staged reading, the unrelenting misogyny shell-shocks even its perpetrator, leaving Charlie to wander around that ring of hell reserved for extreme wiggers and sadistic boyfriends.