Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

Directed by Justin Lin

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In Better Luck Tomorrow a handful of high school students are too smart for their own good.  Ben (Perry Shen) and company embark on a Goodfellas-like rise and fall in a suburban Californian environment.  Their early entries in petty crime come from a sense of boredom, but by the end their ‘breaking bad’ moment deals more with a sense of insecurity.  They will channel all their rage at a charismatic student who lurks on the periphery, Steve (John Cho).

There is a lot to like here.  It’s a film made with the same energy as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and there is a clear message, about the holes in the American education system and the ‘game’ which some people master while others fail to play.

Ben and his friends have played the game so well that they can see right through it.  They are jaded, bored and soon full of drug-fueled aggression.  Their intelligence and ability to game the system plays into egos they may not have known they had.  These are characters you can see one day making a killing on Wall Street, but the course of the film will be a lesson in empathy.

They take things too far, as you might expect, and this forces them to learn a few harsh lessons about life.  Some of the problems with the story, though, are a few too many redundant emotional beats and an ending that inexplicably betrays all the horror the story has built up to.

Better Luck Tomorrow is raw.  It’s like they filmed the first draft of a script that needed a few more passes.  Everything is here, the story, a variety of noteworthy characters and a central thematic through line.  Still, the story has too many starts and stops, and it often relies on Ben’s awkward voice over to get the story going again.

In other words, one thing does not lead to another.  There are leaps in time and a few leaps in logic.  We might have trouble keeping up because the story never seems to know where it’s headed.

Beyond that, Ben is a frustratingly passive character.  He goes with the flow and finds himself in trouble based on the company he keeps.  The story is really about the corruption of his soul, but it’s as if the story is intent on making sure we like this guy, from start to finish.  That means that while he gets into trouble, we can often attribute blame to the people around him, the people who are worse off than he is, more extreme, less empathetic and quicker to violence.

What I will say is that the film paints a clear picture of corporate greed.  Ben is a problem because of his passivity.  He never really stands up for himself, and it’s because of his complicity that things boil over in the climactic scene.  He’s a problem because he doesn’t know when to put his foot down, and that makes him as bad as the people who instigate the events of the film.

Another way of looking at the film might be through the lens of an unreliable narrator.  Ben seems empathetic and kind in the ways we want to believe he is, but perhaps he’s neither of those things.  This would make the film’s conclusion more plausible, in which his narration tells us something positive about life, and we’re led to be that a story with irreversible consequences is nothing but a coming of age tale.

For a sociopath, this all would be a coming of age story, and in that manner it neglects certain fatal results of the story’s action.  This is the only way I think it all makes sense, and if this is the case it would be quite damning.  The story either indulges too much in its main character’s angst or subverts it in surprising, effective ways.  It just depends on how much credit you give the film.

Better Luck Tomorrow is certainly made with passion, and it gives voice to people in cinema who don’t always have one.  It’s inspired and full of a certain kind of anger that feels appropriate.  These are characters who are taking back their image.  These are Asian American students who go against the stereotypical, reductive view of intelligent Asian American students.  Their on paper success equates inversely to a lack of morals.  This relationship says something about the American education system and what it really teaches the people who are forced to play that game.

Up Next: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018), Witness (1985), Dinner With Friends (2001)

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