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?
It definitely had an effect. I grew up in Orange County. That wasn't the only case that happened; there was a rash of cases that came up. It blew me away. I was in college around the time [of the Tay case], and when I heard about it, I said, "Oh, my God, I used to play basketball a couple of miles from that school." I knew people who went to Sunny Hills. It was very disturbing to me, and it affected me on many levels.
In a way, as disturbed and shocked as I was, I could relate to a certain level to the angst and anger, and that's where the impetus for this film came from. When we started off working on the project, writing the script, I thought that these are the issues I want to explore.
It's funny, but I've gotten to know the Stuart Tay case even more after making the film. I consciously did not want to base the film entirely on it because there were a lot of issues I wanted to deal with myself . . . out of respect to the people who were involved in that case. I have no idea what exactly happened. I don't know those characters. I wanted kind of to distance the film from them but at the same time deal with certain issues in a way I'm sure are very relatable.
I think by doing that, people are thinking that, okay, they're Asian, and there's violence, so it must be the Tay case. It just shows we need to look closer. There are similarities, but it's actually very different.
Do you think there's a danger—all the [main] characters are Asian—that it plays into the stereotype that all Asians look alike and that there's no Asian history in the U.S.?
I don't think so at all. It'll only be a danger if I didn't do my job, if the characters in this film were caricatures or one-dimensional. I did not make this film to say, "Hey, look, everybody in the world! This film is about every Asian American." It's not! It's so specific to the point that it's upper-middle class, Asian American, male, honor roll, teen, Academic Decathlon kids.
That also shows a lack of representation in cinema because the ideal situation is that we have three Asian American films at any given time in theaters, and one of them might be a dark film that deals with violence, another one could be a sweet, romantic comedy. And that's what makes cinema.
But people are saying it represents a new Asian American cinema because you are not stuck to this old, traditional, homeland view.
Really, it's out of respect for those films. I think those issues have been explored, and they have been well-done. I grew up watching those films, and, wow, I'm very proud that I got to see Asian American experiences; I got to see them dealing with family issues. I'm so glad those issues have been dealt with before, and they will be dealt with, I'm sure, with time, but there are other perspectives that have never been seen before.
Based on what happens in the film, you're not saying a lot of kids try to sneak their way into top schools?
No. Again, I'm saying this is a very specific experience. These are kids who are, literally, too smart for their own good. I'm not making generalized statements by any means. . . . It's not a documentary, and believe me, documentaries are also very subjective. I've made those, too.
Is there also a class analysis?
Totally. Class is something that gets lost in American discourse overall. We're so preoccupied with race. Class plays a big role in the film. These are kids who, in dealing with glass ceilings, are looking up and down.
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Some people think the ending . . . implies the kids got away with it.
That's a very simplified reaction. It's okay. I hope people who think that will voice their opinion and talk to others who may not agree. In a sense, we are so used to things being wrapped up in 90 minutes. I don't want a pat ending.
With teen violence, the kids don't disappear. They grow, and they live on whether they get caught or not. There are consequences; there are reactions to their actions; there are emotions to their actions. That's what I want to portray in this film. I want people to watch the film, and when the credits roll, they have to think for themselves. If I've done my job, hopefully, they'll ask themselves: How did these kids in the beginning of the film get to where they got to in the end? And what's going to happen to them now that all this craziness has happened? If they can ask those two questions, wow, I feel that's the intent of the movie, to ask, 'Why, why, why?' I don't have the answers myself, but the only way everyone is going to have these answers is to raise these questions and talk amongst themselves.
VisitBetter Luck Tomorrow's official website: www.betterlucktomorrow.com.