Lin's School Daze

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2003

THERE'S a swirling, disturbing undertow to the American Dream in "Better Luck Tomorrow." It's the arrogant expectations of a group of high schoolers from California's Orange County who want success all too immediately and easily.

Justin Lin's debut film is an intriguingly grim spin on the usually hyper-romanticized immigrant story. But Lin swings the pendulum too far toward jaded nihilism. Although this movie shows Lin's promising moviemaking sensibilities, its point of view feels coldly amoral and dismissive. There's something tacitly celebratory between the lines, as though a cult movie is being gleefully assembled. (Come see the Asian American "Clockwork Orange"!)

As for his appointed hero, the charming, conscientious student Ben (Parry Shen), he feels like Lin's pawn in a somewhat cynical scheme. He's a high school senior, great at academics but useless with girls, obsessed with making it through the dolphin hoops of the college application process. He does all the appropriate activities: lunch-hour social clubs, rote memorization of impressive power words for his vocabulary, and so forth. Clearly, Lin wants to show him trying to do things the right way, so we'll practically cheer when he opts for the less legitimate approach.

The road to ruin lies with his ambitious, hyped-up friends Virgil (Jason Tobin), Han (Sung Kang) and Daric (Roger Fan), who don't let morals get in the way of their almost vampirical drive for good times. They steal, they participate in academic fraud, they deal drugs. It's all good. It's all fun. Ben's high-road/low-road quandary is compounded by his dangerous attraction to Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), a cheerleader who's seeing Steve (John Cho), the ultimate hipster. He doesn't go to their school. He drives a motorbike. He thinks purely about himself.

Lin's story (which starts with the discovery of a dead body and goes back to how it all began) is an episodic sprawl rather than a straightforward scenario. We're faced with some disconcerting questions: Are we to laud hyper-intelligent kids for taking shortcuts to a better life, to the point of academic cheating and even murder? Are we even to accept their actions (with hand-wringing resignation) as the unavoidable consequences of a society's unfair pressures on its best and brightest? Lin seems morally satisfied with this angle. Bad things happen. This is America. Why not use it to an advantage?

In the end, the narrative meandering becomes the movie's finest asset. We get time to really know Ben and his friends as they cool heels, josh with and eventually bitterly fight with one another. Shen's nicely textured performance brings much-needed warmth and likability to these moments. And there's something deeply refreshing about experiencing Asian American characters who are largely free of the usual movie stereotypes. But there's a corollary to this: They're perfectly but disturbingly American.

BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (R, 98 minutes) -- Contains violence, drug use, nudity, obscenity and sexual situations. At Loews Georgetown and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company