On the Beat

Filmmaker Justin Lin at Sundance

Photo by John BernsteinDirector Justin Lin waits quietly in the lobby of the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater, the largest of the Sundance venues. It's approaching noon on the first Saturday of the Sundance Film Festival, and in about 15 minutes, the 30-year-old director's second feature, Better Luck Tomorrow, one of the 17 entries in the festival's dramatic competition, will receive its world premiere. The screening is sold out. There's already buzz on the film, generated, in part, by Lin's selection as one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" and by the fact that before the festival a rough cut of the film had been stolen from a production house and slipped to suits at Fox and USA. As the lobby crowd grows louder and more tightly packed, the film's crew and cast circulate expectantly. Lin stands in place, eyes rimmed red from a lack of sleep. A BLTwatch cap is pulled down almost to the tops of his tortoise-shell frames, and a plaid scarf winds up around his neck from a charcoal greatcoat; little of him shows, and his placid mien betrays even less of his state of mind.

I ask if he's nervous. "Yeah," he nods, with a Park City sniffle. "I'm nervous about talking to the crowd, but, y'know, they say I should just be myself." I pass on some advice a musician once gave me—don't be yourself, be your persona. Lin laughs, then shrugs. "I don't know what that is yet."

It's an apt response from someone whose film is about the quest for personal definition. The story of four Asian-American, grade-A high school guys living in the SoCal suburbs and of the phenomenon of what Lin calls "shopping for identity," Better Luck Tomorrow aims to explode the stereotype of the passive, academically obsessed Asian-American male. What distinguishes the film, which Lin co-wrote with Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez, from more sober indie fare by and about ethnic Americans is a wicked sense of humor and a provocative ending that, as he emphasizes repeatedly in the days to come, he hopes will engender discussion. Lin may not know what his persona is yet, but he seems unafraid of taking some risks on the way to finding out.

"Justin's willing to swim in the deep end of the pool," says Jeff Dowd, who, along with indie heavy John Sloss, is one of BLT's two producers' reps. "It's significant that this kid is willing to take a chance and make a controversial movie." Maybe so, but while Lin is savvy enough to get that a controversial ending will draw attention, without the glasses, hat and overcoat, his clean-cut good looks and affable demeanor point more to the conscientious student whose image his movie sets out to challenge than to the daring indie director. One-on-one time with him does little to dispute that. At an après-ski fern bar done up in Indian baskets and marble chandeliers, Lin matter-of-factly describes arriving in Buena Park from Taiwan at age 9, what it was like being the only Asians in town, and how he worked afternoons and weekends at his family's fish-and-chip shop ("I can make coleslaw so fast," he says with a chopping motion). "I hated International Day at school. Now, looking back, it actually was kind of cool because you were able to remove yourself a lot of the time," he says. "I think it helped as a filmmaker—at least you have a different perspective.

"The other thing that really helped," Lin continues, "was sports. Basketball. One of the things about basketball is I hustle. I mean, I'll dive on the floor, anything to try and win the game." It's true—Lin hustles. Saturday night at the fern bar, the premiere party is raging; a packed schmooze zoo of party girls and publicists, industry types and the odd ski bum, cram in around a standard-issue snack table as a DJ spins a cover-the-bases mix of swing, soul and Sade. While the cast drinks and chats up what seems to be every Asian babe at Sundance, Lin politely fields a succession of agents, executives and well-wishers. "Man, I need a glass of water," he confides with a weak, put-upon smile and roll of the eyes. By the end of the party, he finally gets a chance to cut loose, dancing in the middle of a boogie circle and joining a conga line, but when the festivities shut down at 2 a.m., Lin is ready for some sleep. It's not to be: with the admonition that parties are work, Dowd urges the director on to another pair of Sundance soirees.

The next morning, when Lin embarks on a marathon of meetings with distributors and agents that will last until 1 a.m., he will have had a total of 30 minutes' sleep in the past 24 hours. While the meetings produce no home for the picture (at the close of the festival, distributors are still circling), Lin is cautiously pleased to find he will have his choice among agents interested in representing him. "It's exciting," he says, more deliberately than breathlessly, "but I don't know what it means, you know?"

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