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Better Luck Tomorrow
2003 - R - 101 Mins.
Director: Justin Lin
Producer: Julie Asato, Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin
Written By: Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez
Starring: Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho
Review by: Greg Ursic

Life in the fast lane
Ben Manibag is a typical overachiever who spends his time obsessing over SAT’s, pumping up his college apps with extracurricular activities and lusting after the unreachable girl. In his downtime he shoots free throws and runs scams for something to do. Ben and his upper middle class friends, Virgil, Daric and Han, come to realize that academic success gives them a free pass – partying takes place under the guise of Academic Decathlon tryouts and they can stay out until all hours with impunity. When their cheat sheets for sale gig loses it’s edge they up the ante, graduating to drug dealing and embrace the gangster lifestyle.

Tired of the lack of roles and stereotypical representation of Asian American actors in film UCLA film grad Jason Lin decided to make his own movie. Unable to find funding – investors liked his script, but were hesitant to back a dark film about amoral self-destructive Asian American honor students pursuing the American dream – he maxed out his credit card collection, drained his savings and took the leap. With money being a scarce commodity Lin quickly got a crash course in indie film-making, relying on borrowed equipment and volunteers. For example, when filming the party scene, Lin couldn’t afford more than twenty extras, so after filming the scene at the front of the house, the extras ran through the house to the backyard for the next scene.

Parry Shen leapt at the chance to play Ben the good kid who plays outside the rules. He brings a confident innocence and quiet charisma to the role – Ben could easily have been the kid that sat next to you in biology. Shen’s portrayal makes Ben acceptable even as he descends into a maelstrom of drugs and criminal activity. Contrasting Ben’s devolution and seeming redemption is Jason Tobin’s Virgil, the manic delinquent outcast of the group who embraces and thrives in the darkness. Tobin’s rhesus monkey look and mannerisms are both comical, and frightening - always on the edge and you never know when he'll fly off the handle a la Joe Pesci’s Tommy in “Goodfellas”. Providing the essential estrogen component for the film is Karin Anna Cheung as Stephanie, Ben’s object of desired affection and arguably the titular character. Cheung infuses Stephanie with palpable dynamism and resolved determination (the beauty and intelligence obviously come naturally). This in turn highlights her vulnerable naiveté when it comes to men. The acting merely serves as the cherry on top however.

In spite of the aforementioned budgetary constraints, Lin’s film looks great – the editing is clean, and the camera work feels professional (he doesn’t rely on the nausea inducing bouncing handicam shots de rigeur in indie films). Rather than present stock angst ridden teenagers, Lin digs into what makes them tick producing multi-layered, interesting characters. The film also provides a jumping off point for Asian American talent – having demonstrated that they are clearly capable of being more than martial arts extras it will hopefully lead to better roles in the future. There are some reservations amidst the praise.

When Ben pulls back from his criminal track, it is accomplished far too easily: his transition from drug dealing coke junkie back to Ben the honour student is accomplished in roughly five minutes. Sleep deprived addicts aren’t generally know for their lucidity and control even after they've hit bottom. More importantly the ending is too abrupt, leaving too many unresolved issues and conflicting variables that don’t respect the continuity of what has preceded. These concerns are not enough to overwhelm the film however.

With “Better Luck Tommorow” Justin Lin injects fresh insight and perspective into an old genre. Expect to see more of his work in the near future.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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