Better Luck Tomorrow
review by Zach B.
MPAA Rating: R (For Violence, Drug Use, Language and Sexuality)
Running Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho and introducing Karin Anna Cheung
Written by: Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin and Fabian Marquez
Directed by: Justin Lin
Retail Price: $29.99
Features: Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Justin Lin, Co-Writer Ernesto M. Foronda and Co-Writer Fabian Marquez
Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (14 Scenes)
Released: September 30th, 2003
"You know this is all bullshit, right? It's just a game."
Ben (Parry Shen) is an overachieving California high school student who is well on his way to getting into an Ivy league college and becoming a success in the future. But for the time being, he feels socially out of place and wants more out of his life as well as more recognition. This soon changes when Ben gets involved with a few people from his school to do some more "exciting" things. You know, things you'd never expect an honors student to be a part of: selling cheat sheets, doing drugs, having sex with prostitutes and other forms of crime. But as Ben harbors feelings for his lab partner Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) and gets deeper and deeper into a whole new kind of life, things are also bound to get worse and worse...
"Better Luck Tomorrow" was made for only 250k, and earned some strong critical notices and ended up making a few million dollars at the box office. It certainly is an interesting and overall original production, one that should be noted for what it says about current American teenage culture and how it portrays Asian-Americans. The Asian-Americans in the movie are not really stereotypical, and even though some fun is poked fun at them within the movie, it does not try to pigeonhole Asian-Americans nor does it try to appeal to a specific group; this movie can really be enjoyed by anyone mature enough. Some may say that this movie does stereotype Asian-Americans in that they're all overachievers who do well in school and are going to prestigous colleges, but the idea of the film is that it shows the other side to these group of kids and they're not all what they seem to be. The film attempts to break stereotypes. This is not an "Asian movie," and truthfully, the characters really could be any type of high school student.
What I really liked the most and appreciated about "Better Luck Tomorrow" is the slight commentary on high school itself and the college process itself in that you need excellent grades, extra-cirricular activities and have a full package to get into these top-ranked colleges. The whole process is becoming a further obsession in America, which is only fueled by news publications and the media. Because there's the cycle that you do well in high school to go to that great college to do well there to get into that great grad/law/med school and then make a ton of money in life and brag how successful you are. This is an undercurrent in the film that I suppose could have been touched on even more, but you know it's there and it's something that hangs over the characters. It starts out direct but then remains subtle, which I think is a pretty smart move.
While I did like "Better Luck Tomorrow," I must admit I was expecting more from it. The film certainly does a good job of showing how deep the troubles of the characters escalate into, but I was hoping for more of a punch. The film is nicely symbolic (Ben's fish and of course, the title of the movie) but it never gets too scary despite some violence (I'm surprised nobody has really compared the recent indie hit "Thirteen" with this film) - maybe it's because I'm from a culture that's desensitized from this sort of thing and that teens misbehaving isn't something new (yes, even the ones you least suspect). I suppose the movie is fairly realistic (yes, even the end) and again, while I did like the film and appreciate it what it was saying, I was a bit disappointed from it and wanted more. I was hoping for something in the film to resonate within me much further, even though life really is a game and it's about how you play it or how it plays you. You can win, but you can also lose - let alone you can't always beat the system and make your own rules. It's something that the characters and audience must realize by the end of the film.
Maybe it's because I felt "been there, done that" during some of the scenes. Maybe because I thought it was too bold of a move to never see any actual parents within the movie and pretty much ignore them completley or have any parental characters get suspcious. It's true that some parents couldn't care less about their kids, but most actually do try to be involved and do get caught up in what their kids are doing. Because let's face it: the truth comes out sooner or later. While it is definitely an interesting choice to not involve parents at all, I think having them would have added an extra layer to the story and made it more complex, and perhaps even more realistic.
Another problem I had with "Better Luck Tomorrow" is the character development. Yes, each character is quite distinct as far as personality, but they really aren't developed that well - even the film's DVD box/poster points out each character's "role" so to speak. You have your tough guy, the comic relief, etc. The only characters that I felt had things going for them were of Stephanie and Ben. Ben, our protagonist, gets caught up in things he would never even dream about and enjoys it to an extent, but slowly wants to pull out of the bad things that he has been doing. He gets conflicted emotionally within himself, with what has been happening and what he wants to happen and finally, externally with the character of Stephanie. Ben's emotional factors are an element I really liked. I also thought Stephanie was the other great character since she drives Ben in many ways, and how she has her own attitude that is not standard at all. Stephanie also has her own internal conflicts, and in a very nice scene, acknowledges that she's adopted.
Justin Lin directed the film and he's definitely a talented director with good instincts. It's his second movie, and he does a very impressive job with "Better Luck Tomorrow." Even with a small budget, he does wonders with some pretty stylized shots and makes the story very even, if not a bit predictable - he definitely paces the film well and sets up a nice visual atmosphere to it that at times is pure, but at others, is gritty and dark (the editing is definitely strong). I'm sure some viewers won't see some things coming in the movie, but given the nature of the film and what the characters get caught up into, I was not surprised at all. Still, from this movie, I do like Lin as a filmmaker and I look forward to what he comes up with next.
There's also a cool orginal musical score from Semiautomic and Michael J. Gonzales, but I should also note that all the actors in the movie do a great job (even The Beaver himself, Jerry Mathers!). Even if most of these actors are nearly thirty years old, they do damn good jobs of playing high school students and really are great in their loves, sometimes even surpassing the limitations of their characters. Parry Shen makes a good lead who is realistic, but at times he's a bit drab. Jason Tobin is nice as Virgil and provides some of the darkly comic moments, while Sung Kang is pretty nifty as Han. John Cho also does a sweet job, but I liked the peformances from Karin Anna Cheung and Roger Fan the best. Roger Fan is just this natural actor who really captures the epitome of cool that his character Daric exceeds, as well as the more dangerous side in his shady dealings. Cheung, the love interest, has her own attitude as I mentioned but also holds her own against the male-dominated cast. She does sparkle in the role with quite amount of energy, but her vulnerable side is always something to behold in how she has to realize some certain issues too.
"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a pretty entertaining gripping movie - the film has a lot to say it and does say it right, but it can also be a pretty intense movie to watch at times. Still, the messages within the movie are strong and it's expertly done in how its told, let alone features strong acting from very likeable actors. The movie isn't perfect, but if you're looking for an unusual film aimed at teens but actually does reach out to multiple audiences, then "Better Luck Tomorrow" is one film worth checking out.
"Better Luck Tomorrow" features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and I'm sad to say that it does not look great. But there's probably a good reason for that: the movie was made for only 250,000 dollars. The transfer is very grainy, not to mention incredibly soft. There are plenty of flaws too such as the usual scratches, dirt pieces, nicks and blemishes. There is also a fair amount of noise too as well as quite a lot of shimmering and edge halos. It can be a bit distracting, and overall, not as a natural looking as I had hoped. Still, the transfer has some good details, nice black levels and decent color saturation. But by no means is it impressive, but most can be forgiven since this is a low budget film.
A decent English 5.1 Dolby Digital track is included and its pretty good, but nothing totally impressive. The film's dialogue is clear, but sometimes it can sound a bit low. Fidelity isn't incredibly strong, neither is dynamic range, but its pretty good. Most of the track's power comes from the music (there's plenty of it) and subtle surrounds that nicely invade the rears with some power, but those are pretty sparse. For the record, subwoofer use doesn't amount to much. A Dolby Surround track could have been included on this release and I doubt I would have been able to tell the difference between that and the 5.1. Nonetheless, the 5.1 is good and makes a fine experience for the movie. Also included are English closed captions and English subtitles.
There's only one supplement here (too bad - I was hoping for more like interviews or something) and that's the Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Justin Lin, Co-Writer Ernesto M. Foronda and Co-Writer Fabian Marquez. Thankfully, it's a pretty stellar commentary that touches on a lot of aspects of the production. The filmmakers constantly acknowledge they were dealing with a low budget and give a lot of information in how they pulled it off, which is pretty fascinating. Most of the people working on the film did multiple things, and they talk about the pressures of a tight schedule as well as the advantages and disadvantages of working with a small budget. Everyone on the commentary gets equal speaking time and all seem to be nice guys and friends (Justin Lin in particular seems quite welcome in giving back to younger filmmakers as a story is shared about filming scenes at his old high school). There's a lot of praise going around, and some joking too that's pretty amusing, but they also point out a wrong thing or too here and there. It's an honest and incredibly informative track complete with intriguing production anecdotes. If you liked the movie or are interested in how they pulled the film off on a tiny budget, then this one is well worth a listen. Truly, it's quite a strong commentary. I only wished they touched on the film's story a bit more.
"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a gripping and entertaining film, one with solid points about cultural stereotypes and teenagers in America. Justin Lin is a filmmaker to watch and I can't wait to see what he'll cook up when he gets a big budget to work with. The DVD is serviceable, but the retail price is quite high. It's definitely worth a rental, but if you're a die-hard fan of the movie, then it's worth purchasing.