Behold the Brainy Bad Asses

Justin Lin dares to depict young Asian Americans in a whole new way

Very loosely based on the 1992 Stuart Tay "honor roll" murder—where Tay, a top student at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, was buried alive by several other students—the controversial new film Better Luck Tomorrow does not regurgitate the traditional immigrant character arc of model minorities making it in America. Instead, director Justin Lin (Shopping for Fangs) has created (with co-writer/UC Irvine grad Fabian Marquez) a dark drama that depicts a group of supersmart Asian boys as bad asses.

Lin, who was raised in Buena Park making fish and chips at his parent's food joint, represents the best in a new wave of Asian American indie cinema. Better Luck Tomorrow was a hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival because Lin dared to show young Asians in a new light: not as the stereotypical nerds or gang members but as overachievers who breeze through high school and use their high IQs to belie a hidden life of petty—as well as more serious—crime. Even more revolutionary, the film counters cinematic convention by leaving it unclear whether the bad guys get their comeuppance. Despite such heavy-sounding themes, Lin also manages to sustain a tragically funny story with gripping portrayals that are realistic, not cartoonish.

We talked with Lin about his feature, the first indie picked up for national theatrical distribution by—of all companies—MTV Films (by way of Paramount Classics), some of whose previous flicks (Orange County, Beavis and Butthead Do America, and jackass: the movie) certainly don't play like Better Luck Tomorrow.

OC Weekly: Do you consider Better Luck Tomorrow a crossover film?Justin Lin: When I was making it, I didn't really have that in mind. At the purest level, it was just a film I felt compelled to make. Personally, at that time in my life, I was struggling so much. I just got out of film school; I was in debt; and I thought, I'm going to take 10 credit cards and make this movie, and if I was going to do that, what subjects would I tackle, what issues are important to me?

The whole issue of teen violence, it affects all of us, it disturbs us, but at the same time, I feel a lot of people deal with it on a surface level, on face value, and then they throw away the newspaper, and that's it. So I really felt compelled to try to explore that, to bring up the issues, bring up the questions.

I do think this is a film that has a very specific perspective but at the same time has . . . a lot of universal appeal to it because I think everybody can relate to these characters.

The parents are kind of absent. . . .

That was a very conscious choice. Every time the kids make decisions, when they react to things, a lot of times, they are dealing directly with their relationships with parents. Even though you don't see their parents onscreen, I feel they are very present throughout the film; they are just kind of hovering outside the movie frame itself.

It was conscious because you didn't want to make it a stereotype?

It was conscious because the focus was going to be on the kids. These kids are so smart they are able to create their own space. . . . These parents, in all definition, they are not bad people. They are not bad parents.

A lot of times, people do take things on face value. It seems that if you get straight A's, that's almost like a mark that you supposedly could be a good kid and that you could get away with everything. You say, "Well, I'm going out tonight; I've got to study with my friend." These parents would say, "Well, he's a straight-A student. Let's let him go out." That's part of what we want to explore. I didn't want to say it's the parent's fault because it's not anybody's fault.

I was actually intrigued that the ethnicities of the characters didn't matter. Do you think the fact that they are Asians did matter or not?

It matters a lot in that it's their experience; that's the perspective audiences are going to share with the film. But at the same time, I made a conscious effort that I didn't want them to have to explain why they need to exist onscreen. I think cinema is very backward. Every time you see an Asian face, or Asian American face, or even a Latino face or a gay face, they always have to be there for that reason.

You see a Native American, okay, it must be something spiritual. It's film language, and it's very backward. I don't feel I have to explain myself every second of my life, and I don't feel these characters need to either. I think by doing that, part of it was I wanted to stay very true to the teenagers, to the characters. A lot of times, I feel like you see teenagers onscreen, they're like "movie" teenagers. And this time, I tried very hard to portray and stay true to realcharacters, real people.

How much effect did the Stuart Tay case have on the film?
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