Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2003 4:07 pm 
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Risky tomorrows for shallow smarties

"Better Luck Tomorrow" combines features of "Risky Business" and "Heathers" with an all-Asian cast. Talented director and co-writer Justin Lim throws in a dash of "Shallow Grave" and has obviously consulted a lot of other sources, all in the interests of jazzing up his picture of high school life with its bright new ethnic twist. The Orange County Asian Americans who appear in the film are A students or better, and since that's all their families want, they let the kids run free, and we never even set eyes on moms and dads. These excellent scholars who're on top of all their studies and accumulate extracurricular credits for entrance in the best schools enjoy doing other things that you can't put on any résumé. They don't just talk hip hop dirty and look at porn: they become criminals and get away with it.

Lim's film is entertaining but also provocative. His "Better Luck" story takes the wise and subversive step of liberating Asians from their goody-goody stereotype. In Berkeley the theater was crammed with young Asian Americans: there was a double row of them sitting on the floor behind the seats. How great for all of us to see a funny, articulate, naughty teen movie with an all-Asian American cast, where the whites enter only as bigots and fall guys.

Despite the new demographic, this is in some ways a standard lineup: Virgil, the cute clown, a bit of a wild card, also a truth teller about the young guys' sexual deprivation; tall, handsome, suave Daric, the big man on high school campus, president of all the clubs, etc. he becomes de facto leader of the little crime "club" the boys get into; Ben, the semi-narrator, the overachiever, nice guy, a bit of a nerd, our p.o.v. and the pivot point of the final action; muscular Han, sort of Chinese-mafia looking, supercool and an essential enforcer for bad-boy games. Then there's cheerleader Stephanie, the sultry "girlfriend," taken out by Ben but pledged to Steve, the rich older preppy boyfriend, the strangest and most mysterious and complex guy in the picture, but still initially pretty much a cliché--the guy with the bike, the car, and the girl everybody wants. He will enter center stage when things turn really bad.

What's great about this quick-witted first movie is that it progresses into evil and serious crime so very, very gradually, and the dialogue is funny all the way in. Lim is too smart and adept at storytelling to get bogged down in the clichés.

The narrative (told as one long flashback) begins with Ben. He feels compelled to do everything well, even shooting baskets to beat the NBA free-throw record, which gets him onto the school basketball team, but not off the bench. He's a future college bio major and he gets partnered in class with Stephanie, who's first interested in him because he can help her with the subject, but then also because he's a nice guy. As her study mate, Ben meets Steve, Stephanie's patrician boyfriend. Daric comes into the picture when he does a story for the school paper on Ben's bench-sitting role, calling him a token Asian and a benchwarmer, and this makes Ben become famous as an underdog symbol. Thus Ben gets to know Daric, and Virgil knows them both. Soon Han's in the picture and all four are fellow scam artists. Here's another use for bored suburban teens with high IQ's: getting away with crime.

Ben and Virgil have developed a computer equipment "return" scam to raise easy cash. The group's in-house school misdeeds begin with homework cheat sheets: Daric gives Ben $50 a shot to prepare them and this becomes a cash cow for all four guys.

The complex algebra of the story centers on the fact that precisely because all these boys are winners, they want to succeed as losers, too. They want to be bad boys. With the cheat sheets and the scams they have more money than they can spend.

They're dealing stolen goods and they soon get into drugs: there's a demand, their fellow students think they're the Chinese mafia so they’re expected to do it, and they have the money to build a saleable stash. They begin partying every weekend and are so busy with their off-résumé activities that Ben can't get to his homework till one a.m. even on weekdays. Ben starts to do so much coke he wakes up one night with blood all over the sheets and he tells the others -- Virgil, Han, Daric -- that he wants out. Their answer: they give him a birthday present, a sophisticated new pistol. Nobody gets out. The games just get more dangerous.

Steve has had Ben take Stephanie to the formal because he's above such stuff. Daric tells Ben Steve must think he's ball-less. Daric has, however, arranged for all the boys to lose their virginity with a call girl.

Finally Steve asks the gang to rob his parents' house "to teach them a lesson," "because he cares about them". Rich-boy teenage angst has turned his love to hate. They agree to this new challenge -- high class burglary -- and Steve, obsessively precise, shows them all the routes and dry runs them through his posh house five times. Daric has a new scheme that short circuits Steve's request: he decides that instead of robbing Steve's parents, they're going to beat him up so he'll be the one who learns the lesson.

The way this scene ends is the most haunting and disturbing moment of the movie. From being bright and funny it takes us to a very weird place, a point of no return, a bad luck place.

Viewers might remember Larry Clark's powerful "Bully" (2001) based on a true story of a young man murdered by a group of his friends in South Florida. The difference with "Better Luck Tomorrow" is that these smart Asian Americans don't look like they're going to get caught and we don't see the depth of their guilt and desperation following this act. It's almost a lark, a black joke that opens and closes the story with the grotesquely comic moment of Virgil and Ben sitting in the sun in a friend's back yard and hearing a cell phone ring, then discovering it's Steve's phone, buried with him in the yard. They dig it up and see it's Stephanie calling. She's concerned about Steve's disappearance, but becoming more keen on Ben.

The sour note is that we see Virgil shoot himself and Daric remarking "Will he be retarded or something?" Ben leaves in disgust at this remark and it's clear that Daric's leadership is eroded forever. But these guys are still winners on paper, guys destined to have "better luck tomorrow." The trouble is that this vague ending seems more calculated to please than to challenge us, and the moral void is an issue left dangling. The guys in "Shallow Grave" fall upon each other as in a classic Chaucer tale. The kids in "Bully" rat on each other and go to jail. Lin's cast just walk ambiguously away. Sometimes Lin is too entertaining and slick, but he and his fellow filmmakers are very deft and smart, and this is as edgy and memorable a high school movie as has been seen in many a year.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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