The underside of the Asian student high achievement syndrome is examined in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which uses crime film techniques to explore modern identity and cultural issues among some upper-middle-class kids. Deliberately designed to be provocative in its morally ambiguous stance toward the boys’ amoral and illegal activities, Justin Lin’s nicely turned out picture is sometimes both predictable and a bit far-fetched narratively, but still provides a generally absorbing look at a slice of society normally taken for granted, both in life and onscreen. A modest theatrical career looks like a possibility for this cinematically promising effort.
After a teaser opening in which two boys find a body buried in a suburban backyard, yarn retreats four months to introduce Ben (Parry Shen), a 16-year-old student at an upscale Southern California high school who fits the stereotype of the dedicated Asian scholar to perfection: Presentable but nerdily unassuming, Ben single-mindedly pursues his goal of being the ideal college applicant by studying even more than necessary, doing the requisite community work, holding down a job and avoiding the distracting dating and party scene. His only wayward eccentricity is an occasional bit of shoplifting with his goofy friend Virgil (Jason Tobin).
Ben is on the basketball team, but it’s a career curtailed when another Asian student, ultra-cool class leader Daric (Roger Fan), writes a school newspaper article pointing out that the perennially benched Ben reps a blatant token fulfillment of affirmative action requirements for the team. Distressed by the unwelcome spotlight, Ben quits, but is eventually persuaded by the smooth-talking Daric to make some easy money prepping cheat sheets for school exams.
This low-end malfeasance soon grows into more grandiose criminal activities involving Virgil; the latter’s streetwise older cousin Han (Sung Kang), whose studied silence and slumped posture marks him as a lifelong fan of Hong Kong crime films; and Steve (John Cho), a rich boy from a rival school who is the boyfriend of Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), the cute ultra-achiever Ben has always fancied.
Daric’s little gang soon rules the school (they rep it at an Academic Decathlon held, of all places, in Vegas, where Daric arranges for Ben to lose his virginity with a hooker) and on the streets, where Steve ushers the way into the world of drugs and stolen merchandise. In the usual downward spiral, drink and drugs easily conquer straight-and-narrow impulses, and Ben sees his shining future dimming before his eyes.
When Ben opts to bow out, Daric surprisingly agrees to disband the crew, but not before turning the tables on the arrogant Steve, who has offended Ben with his mistreatment of Stephanie. Naturally, this final job has unintended tragic consequences, and the way the surviving young men react to the event has a lot to say about their view of the relative priorities of morality, justice, self-preservation and entitlement. It’s not a pretty picture, although one drawn in terms that seem equally drawn from movies as from real life; the idea that the guys could get away with as much as they do without it being noticed by anyone is a stretch, as is the blind eye the ultra-correct Stephanie turns toward Steve’s behavior.
Lin and his co-screenwriters Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez unfold these events with speed, economy and no small number of credible sociological details; the kids live in uniform, squeaky clean modern houses in a characterless community where parents and school overseers are never seen. They are expected to perform well and do so, and one can hardly say that this soil, no matter how shallow, is a normal breeding ground for violent feelings deeper than a certain ennui and anxiety.
The problem with these over-privileged souls is that they imagine they can behave however they want and still get what they believe is their due, that they think they can get away with anything. Maybe they can, which is dilemma Lin presents to the audience.
Pic has stylistic smarts, is energized by a sharp song score and is boosted by a very good cast, notably the charismatic Fan as the risk-taking Daric, Shen as the good boy too weak not to go bad and Cheung as the preppy 4.0 dream girl.