Asian Americans In Three Dimensions: Justin Lin Talks About “Better Luck Tomorrow”
by Erica Abeel
A fine way to catch the attention of jaded cinephiles — and the eye of distributors — is to blow the lid off a stereotype. Justin Lin does precisely that in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a darkly comedic film about upscale, overachieving Asian-American teenagers who embark on risky extracurricular activities not designed to speed acceptance to the Iives. Commonly perceived in Western culture as a “model minority,” the Asian Americans in Lin’s tale start a cheat-sheet scam, then move on to stealing computer hardware and dealing drugs, until their games spiral into mayhem and death.
The journey leading to the film’s release is a familiar story of maxed-out credit cards, cashed-out savings, daunting obstacles, and Lin’s passionate belief in his own project. Made for $250,000, “Better Luck” originated as Lin’s short-form thesis script at UCLA’s School of Film and Television. Convinced that the meaty characters burst the bonds of 30 pages, he worked with friends and co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez to develop (over roughly two years) a feature-length film. But the money guys balked at backing a controversial tale of nihilistic Asian-American teens (some even suggesting writing in a Caucasian lead, or adjusting the screenplay for Latino actors.) Eventually, the script’s good buzz and Lin’s persuasiveness prompted Kodak to kick in 20,000 feet of free film, leading Lin to scrap his original plan to shoot in DV and film in 35mm instead. He drew on the cream of Asian-American actors; all too often cast as take-out delivery boy or martial arts extra, they hungered to play fleshed-out characters who are people first, and only incidentally members of a minority.
When “BLT” (as it’s known to fans) screened at Sundance 2002, its chillingly “amoral” portrayal of Asian Americans ignited heated debate at Q&A sessions. Roger Ebert defended the film — “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want” — and compared it to Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Following a flurry of acquisition interest, “Better Luck” eventually found a home with MTV Films, which opened the film (with Paramount) in theaters on Friday and also plans a big push on its network, including a half-hour special on the film plus repeated commercials and news briefs.
Even with its shocker premise, “Better Luck” keeps uneasy company with the standard teen movie: in a predictable subplot, middle class Ben (Parry Shen) locks horns with rich kid Steve (John Cho) over his study-partner and looker Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). And in exposing the underbelly of suburbia, the film joins a flourishing American sub-genre. At the same time, “Better Luck” reaches beyond genre to comment acidically on America’s morally vacuous youth, seduced by the urban gangsta lifestyle. And the film is marked by visual stylishness and verve, with its mix of stills, herky-jerky speed, and the camera drawing ever-tighter circles around this self-destructing “Chinese Mafia.”
Briefly swinging through New York, Justin Lin, who comes from a working-class Chinese-American family from Anaheim, Calif., by way of Taiwan, appears unfazed by his success to date. He regards it as part of a “journey” that also includes upcoming projects with 20th Century Fox and Spike Lee’s company. At thirty-one, he’s boyishly appealing like his characters, with the coiled energy of a former basketball player, and a taste for speaking in West Coast “spiritualese.”
indieWIRE: What was the appeal of your film for MTV?
Justin Lin: They felt it treated the characters and today’s youth with respect. They liked that the film was pertinent and didn’t talk down to the viewer. This is not a popcorn movie after all, so it was more about the issues for them. And it’s very universal. We can all relate to the fact that sometimes we make, you know, harmless decisions for really weird reasons, and that will lead to other decisions, and then five decisions down the line, you’re like, How did I get here? And we can all relate to the angst, the sense of wanting to belong. I can relate to “Goodfellas” and “Trainspotting,” yet I’m not Irish American or Italian.
The film also deals with an issue without sugar coating it — the humor is organic and fresh. In Hollywood teen projects, like Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210,” they’re not real kids. My film is the counter-example. We set out to stay true to the characters, who they are, how they talk, their sense of humor.
iW: Did you consciously set out to smash the stereotype of Asian-American students?
Lin: I’m not trying to represent all Asian Americans. The film is quite specific in its perspective. I really just wanted to stay true to the characters. Ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason: they’re a shortcut, a label. I wanted fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters. There’s been a lot of talk about “positive” or “negative” portrayal. We mistake positive for noble and flawless. To me positive means being truthful, exploring three-dimensional characters, the grey areas of life. My film would be negative only if I didn’t do my job and these characters turned out to be one-dimensional or caricatures.
iW: Your characters never dwell on ethnicity and race. Do you see this as a break-through in the way Asian Americans are portrayed?
Lin: Cinema is actually very backward. When we see gay characters or people of color, they’re always there for that reason. I’m personally kind of sick of that. I love to see characters who just live and breathe and are comfortable in that space. I live in this society and I don’t need to explain why I need to exist every day of my life.
iW: Why are the upper-middle-class kids in your film seduced by the urban gangsta lifestyle, down to the dragging-crotch pants and lingo?
Lin: I’ve worked a lot with kids in L.A., in sports and media, and it was very interesting how they go out and adopt these kinds of identities. They’re not true identities — the urban gangsta identity is very contrived, almost like what they see from the media. But it appeals to upper middle class kids because they want empowerment. And one obvious form of that is to try to be a gangsta and intimidate and create fear. When I was growing up, the honor role kids were picked on by the jocks. And those kids said, “You know, 15 years from now, I’m going to be their boss and own them.” But today’s kids just want to buy a gun and shoot them.
iW: That’s no longer upper middle class.
Lin: It is upper middle class. This mentality is not just restricted to working class. Angst is angst. They lack understanding of why they do certain things. This society assumes, “Oh, they get good grades, we can trust them.” But they’re just kids, still developing.
iW: I was struck by the fact that your characters almost never interact with Caucasians.
Lin: The film is really about the clique and its dynamics. Daric [a charismatic manipulator played Roger Fan] exploits the others’ weaknesses so he can control them, as part of his master plan. He wants to be king of his domain. Though race is a factor I’d never discount, the power struggles of a group dynamic cuts across cultures.
iW: Theoretically, these kids are bound for the good life, then blow it. Are you critiquing the American Dream?
Lin: It’s dangerous to buy the American Dream without questioning. We need to ask, “Why do I want this dream?” My dream was to get to Sundance, get acquired — yet this whole journey has taught me more than the act of being acquired. As a filmmaker, a lot of what you do in your work parallels real life. It’s funny how I’ve been learning a lot about the issues that I was dealing with in the movie itself. Like in film school I thought I wanted to get this. Now I’m constantly asking myself: “Why do I want to make films? To make a million-dollar deal or to deal with issues that are important to me?”
iW: Many indie films tend to be solipsistic and airless, oblivious to any social context. Is “Better Luck Tomorrow” saying something about the larger world?
Lin: A student asked me, “Is there a correlation between your film and the war that’s going on now?” I answered that I was very much exploring the mentality of all of society through this one very specific perspective. The correlation is that there’s a lack of communication, whatever your views on the war. And if I did my job as a filmmaker and stayed true to my characters, it does correlate with what’s going on in the bigger scheme. You should walk away from this film asking questions — like how did these kids get where they get to? Five decisions down the line, they’re forced to do certain things; the decisions lead to other decisions. That’s certainly a parallel with the war. My goal for this film was to start a discourse. When the credits roll, the movie doesn’t end. These people live on. In some films, everything’s wrapped up and cozy. But in my film, when you see the car driving off, you know the characters have to live with the consequences of their actions.
iW: Do they get away with murder?
Lin: Even if they’re not caught, they have to live with it.
iW: You’ve been criticized for the Grand Guignol aspect of your movie. Is the plot plausible? I mean, Ben is so sweet.
Lin: I’d like to say this is totally fiction. But if you look at articles and newspapers over the past 15 years, a lot of crazier things have happened. Ben may be sweet, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t repress and have a dark side. He’s too smart for his own good. He has issues with Steve he thinks he’s dealt with. But there’s a subtle masculation going on.
iW: Your film has terrific energy and style. Could you talk about your visual strategy? For instance, why, at the top, all those stills?
Lin: You know, it’s funny that MTV picked it up because my whole notion was to make an anti-MTV film. In the sense that a lot of times music videos are very flashy and stylish and look great and rip off everything from great experimental films, yet there’s nothing behind it except the fact that they look cool. And I wanted to capture that sensibility — yet have meaning behind it. If there’s a jump cut, I have a reason for the jump cut. And if the camera is circling the kids, I want to have a reason for that. I wanted to make sure I had reasons for everything. That was my goal going in.
iW: So the stills?
Lin: When I think of high school, stills are so important: it’s all about the wallet with the kids — they define themselves with pictures, who they know, whose pictures they have. Yearbook pictures. I felt like that fit into the visual style.
iW: And why the circle motif?
Lin: I wanted to have this arc, this feeling of being totally contained, stuck in a circle, so I had this kind of camera motif that evolved throughout the film. At the start, it’s hand held and a lot more subtle. But at the garage [a scene of climactic violence] I made sure it was on a circular track to make sure it was a perfect circle. Jump cuts showed the sense of disconnect. I used slow motion, too, because these kids are caught up in empowerment images involving very subtle things, like just walking down the hall. For that one split second everyone’s looking at you. I also used a lot of whip pans to create the sense of like not having much control.
iW: And all the eccentric camera angles?
Lin: That was because I think of suburbia itself as a character. And a lot of times, how I frame a character makes a big difference in how suburbia’s presented. That’s the guilty pleasure of this process: writing is very painful. But the cherry on top of the sundae is to be able to sit down and map out the shots.