Justin Lin’s feature debut as a solo helmer, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” hit Sundance in 2002. Its subject matter wasn’t too unfamiliar: a group of high-achieving Asian-American high school kids who lead parallel lives of crime.
But like many films at the festival, it drew some jeers as well as cheers. One famous jeer-and-cheer exchange involved the late, great film critic Roger Ebert.
After the film’s third screening, an audience member stood up, praised Lin & Co.’s filmmaking, but asked, “Why, with the talent up there … would you make a film so empty and amoral for Asian-Americans. . .” and asked the filmmakers why they don’t “really look inside and see what matters to you and the writers.”
Oh no he didn’t! Those remarks ignited a heated discussion between the filmmakers onstage and others in the audience — until Ebert rose to deliver what become a legendary smackdown:
“What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’. . .Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever they hell they want to be. They don’t have to represent ‘their people!’” Ebert shouted over swelling cheers from the crowd.
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Ebert’s review — he gave it four stars — showed his understanding of what Lin was trying to achieve: “’Better Luck Tomorrow’ is a coming-of-age film for Asian-Americans in American cinema. Like African-American films that take race for granted and get on with the characters and the story, Lin is making a movie where race is not the point but simply the given. … Lin, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced, here reveals himself as a skilled and sure director, a rising star. … His film is uncompromising and doesn’t chicken out with a U-turn ending.”
The clip still endures on YouTube and many indie film websites. A champion of Asian-American cinema, Ebert emerged as a bigger hero to this filmmaking community.