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BETTER LUCK TOMORROW

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung
Director: Justin Lin
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: Commentary
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2003

“You never forget the sight of a dead body. But then again, I was experiencing a lot of things for the first time. I guess it’s just part of growing up.”

Film ****

Very few films, even that from the independent circuit, are able to deliver as much raw and invigorating power as Better Luck Tomorrow, a film that is easily one of the year’s very best. This is a rare film that actually has something important to say, even if it its many issues are relentless and disturbing. Above all else, it’s a remarkable piece that I’m sure will be hard to forget for all those who watch it.

Prior to watching this film, it never occurred to me that Asian Americans never had a so-called “face” in cinema. If anything, Better Luck Tomorrow has opened the doors to a bright positive future. I truly feel that this film is to Asians what Boyz N the Hood was for African Americans, in the sense of portraying a certain minority in a much realistic fashion, and giving the country a serious wake up call (the very figure of speech that finds its way into the film in a pivotal moment) with its subject matter.

The film’s centers on a group of wealthy, overachieving high school kids in Orange County. The central focus is Ben (Parry Shen), a kid who’s got the makings of greatness all around him. He’s got straight A’s, a position on the undefeated varsity basketball team, as well as the Academic Decathlon Team, and the food drive, just to name a few extracurricular credits. What Ben has is Ivy League material written all over him.

Indeed, Ben is part of a noticeable clique, which includes his friends Virgil (Jason Tobin), Daric (Roger Fan), and Han (Sung Kang). What Ben engages in with his three friends is one of the many striking surprises of the story. He and his friends deal in selling cheat sheets in the same fashion a drug dealer would distribute drugs. Eventually, they add drugs to their trade. They make good bank off of this, and are able to dabble in day to day pleasures thanks to the endless cash that rolls in.

As for worrying about getting caught, Ben and his pals don’t even beg to worry. Because of the terrific grades they get, their parents always assume they are always studying at night, when in fact they are staying out all night and getting involved in some risqué activities. As Ben says at one point in narration, “Our A’s were our passports to freedom”.

The only low point in Ben’s life is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. He has his eyes set on the very pretty Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), and his affections seem to only grow when they are assigned as lab partners in their biology class. Ben would consider asking her out in an instant, but she happens to be involved with Steve (John Cho).

It’s not so much the fact that Stephanie has a boyfriend that upsets Ben, but rather the fact that Steve happens to be something of an intimidating figure. When Ben discovers that Steve is in fact cheating on her, it only makes matters worse. As much as he would love to be with Stephanie, Ben’s one true wish is that she be treated right, which Steve isn’t doing.

The conveying message of Better Luck Tomorrow is quite shaking and provocative. The young characters happen to be privileged with wealth and academic excellence, and engage in criminal activity for no other reason but to add a little excitement to what they see as a routine existence. Nonetheless, their crime spree spirals very dangerously in a startling scene late in the film, and the explosive turn is bound to induce a feeling nothing short of being hit by a sledgehammer.

It’s common to hear about teenagers from rough neighborhoods and broken families turning to a life a crime, but the message that this film conveys is that the tendencies of teenagers are much unpredictable, as demonstrated here. Writer/director Justin Lin has made an audacious and vividly striking first film feature, painting a portrait of realistic characters in very realistic situations. The entire cast shines, led by a breakthrough performance from Parry Shen.

Better Luck Tomorrow is a shattering, provocative, and purely uncompromising view of teenage life from a whole new perspective, and it is one of the year’s very best films.

Video ****

Sometimes, independent films, namely ones with ultra-low budgets such as this release, manage to deliver a look to it all its own. Better Luck Tomorrow has that edgy look to it, suggesting that Justin Lin might have what it takes to become the next Oliver Stone. It has also resulted in a truly stunning looking presentation from Paramount. The anamorphic picture is frequent with hungry, super-sharp images, as lighting is a key factor in many shots. No image flaws detected whatsoever, as crisp images and strong, natural colors prevail, in addition.

Audio ***

The film also manages to deliver on the audio aspect, as well, thanks to the lively 5.1 track. Sound makes its mark on very numerous occasions in the film, whether it’s playback from a certain song, or in a near-silent scene, like in the opening when all that can be heard is the ringing of a cell phone. Dialogue is delivered in the highest quality of delivery capable, and range among the channels is at a much good level. Strikingly good for a film like this.

Features **

Included is a commentary track with writer/director Justin Lin and co-writers Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez.

Summary:

Better Luck Tomorrow is as strong a cinematic piece as I’ve seen all year. Blending in elements of coming-of-age drama, crime and violence, and most particularly social commentary, this is a pure movie knockout that is sure to get many viewers talking afterward.