A surprise Sundance hit last year and the first acquisition for MTV Films, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow is a stylish rumination on teen violence that wonders if overachievers also feel the pressure to overachieve at crime. While there’s nothing original about dispossessed nerds having their day, Lin’s decision to make the film an all-Asian American affair has turned it into a community cause.
“This film was a last resort to me,” Lin explains. “I went to film school and I’d been struggling financially for 10 years.” The film’s cast and crew—a mix of young and old commonly frustrated over Hollywood’s reluctance to give Asian Americans substantial movie roles—signed on for little to no pay.
They completed the film thanks to 10 maxed-out credit cards and an eleventh-hour loan from M.C. Hammer, who Lin met at an electronics show. (“He’s gonna be taken care of,” Lin assures.) BLT debuted at Sundance, where a well-publicized spectacle involving freelance rabble-rouser Jim Fouratt made it instantly notorious. At the fateful Q&A, a ticked-off Fouratt berated Lin and the cast for making a film so “empty (and) amoral for Asian Americans and for Americans.” An indignant Roger Ebert, who attacked Fouratt: “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people . . . nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ ”
The controversy turned BLT and Lin into hot commodities. Lin sold the distribution rights to MTV Films, and despite initial MTV suggestions to make the film’s soundtrack more buzzworthy (Lin mostly declined), he describes the relationship in only positive terms. As Lin angles to become the most prominent American filmmaker of Asian descent since Wayne Wang, BLT shoulders a significant burden. “I’ve talked to a lot of Asian American filmmakers and they’re like, we’ve got some people interested [in their scripts] but they’re just waiting to see how Better Luck Tomorrow does,” Lin recounts. Several Asian American professional and student groups have moved to buy out opening weekend shows.
The film’s backstory is documented in Genesis by Evan Leong. There’s an infectious joy to Leong’s candid conversations with the cast as they reflect on Asian Americans in film and celebrate the BLT community. “These are three-dimensional people. In the industry, they’ll cast Asians to play ‘Asian’ characters—they’re there for that ‘Asian’ reason.” Lin recalls viewing the actor’s reel for Jason Tobin (BLT‘s “Virgil”), who was cast in seven or eight television shows and films, always as the same character: a Chinese delivery boy.
BLT will be remembered as a noble effort to efface Hollywood’s accumulated misrepresentations of Asian Americans. At the very least, one hopes that the critical moment this shoestring effort has made will insure the more hopeful future its title promises.