Better Luck Tomorrow
|Better Luck Tomorrow|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Justin Lin|
|Cinematography||Patrice Lucien Cochet|
|Edited by||Justin Lin|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$3.8 million|
Better Luck Tomorrow is a 2002 crime-drama film directed by Justin Lin. The film is about Asian American overachievers who become bored with their lives and enter a world of petty crime and material excess. Better Luck Tomorrow introduced film audiences to a cast including Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan and John Cho.
In its first ever film acquisition, MTV Films eventually acquired Better Luck Tomorrow after it debuted at The Sundance Film Festival. After meeting at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Nevada in April 2001, MC Hammer (credited as a producer) provided the much needed funding to the filmmaker Justin Lin for this film. The director said, "Out of desperation, I called up MC Hammer because he had read the script and liked it. Two hours later, he wired the money we needed into a bank account and saved us."
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Ben Manibag and Virgil Hu are stereotypical overachieving Asian-Americans whose singular goal is to gain acceptance into highly prestigious Ivy League universities. Ben engages in perfectionistic pursuits including learning a new SAT word daily, and trying to best Calvin Murphy's record for free-throw shooting percentage. Ben reveals that his perfectionism cloaks another side of his life, including toilet-papering houses with Virgil and other petty crimes including the theft and return of computer equipment with Virgil and his cousin Han Hu to earn easy money. Ben is involved in many school clubs, mainly to pad his college application. He makes the basketball team, though he ends up receiving only token playing time. At the same time, Ben develops a crush on his new lab partner, Stephanie Vandergosh, a girl of Asian descent adopted by a white family.
After meeting Daric Loo, senior valedictorian and president of nearly every student club, Ben becomes part of a school-wide cheat sheet operation. Ben pays Jesus, another student, to steal the tests from the school office, which are then sold off to students. Ben also brings in Virgil and Han into the operation, and the four of them make a small fortune. Meanwhile, Ben has fallen for Stephanie. He discovers that her boyfriend, Steve Choe, seems to take her for granted. Steve discovers Ben's crush and offers to let him take her to the Winter Formal.
As a member of the Academic Decathlon team with Daric, Virgil and Han, the team practices at Daric's house with the practices devolving into drinking parties. After Daric mistakenly thinks he is going on a date with Stephanie, the group gets intoxicated and arrives at a party, where they are accosted by a football player who mocks them. A fight results in Daric pulling out a gun, stopping the fight. At school the following Monday, news of the fight spreads around school and the group's notoriety increases. They gradually expand into more dangerous scams, such as the theft of computer parts from the school and eventually selling drugs. They become users themselves, with Ben developing a heavy cocaine habit. Ben feels increasingly conflicted as he feels stifled by the expectations that others have of him. On his birthday, he wakes up with a nosebleed as a result of his cocaine use, which scares him into changing his life. He tells the group that he wants to quit. Daric agrees with him, adding that their operation has become a full-time job. Daric presents a gun from the three of them to Ben for his birthday.
Virgil continues the operation on his own, but is soon exposed thanks to his own carelessness and bragging. Han is forced to take the blame for the cheat sheet operation and is suspended, but not before beating up Virgil. Ben resumes his academic and extracurricular pursuits. He also begins spending more time with Stephanie, who reveals a wild side of her own when she gives him a CD that she shoplifted. He eventually asks Stephanie to the formal, to which she agrees. During a trip to the Academic Decathlon championships in Las Vegas, Daric hires a prostitute for the guys, with Ben losing his virginity in the process. During his turn, Virgil pulls a gun on the prostitute and she storms off, leading to a fight between Virgil and Han. Despite the turmoil, the team wins the competition.
Ben and Stephanie attend the winter formal together and cultivate their friendship.The situation is made clear to Ben when Steve is seen outside of the formal, waiting to take Stephanie home. Steve meets Ben and tells him that he has information on a possible score. The group is stunned when Steve wants them to rob his parents' house. He refers to it as a wake-up call. Ben and Han are against the plan, but Daric convinces them to participate, saying that this would be the perfect opportunity to teach Steve a lesson. They agree to Steve's plan and practice constantly, even agreeing to purchase a gun for Steve.
On New Year's Eve, the four meet Steve at Jesus' house under the pretense of robbing Steve's parents' house, where they begin attacking Steve instead. In the ensuing struggle the gun goes off. Ben beats Steve nearly to death in the confusion. Thinking Steve is dead, the group convinces Jesus to agree to bury the body in his backyard for $300. Steve begins to twitch, but Daric suffocates Steve with a gasoline-soaked rag while a tearful Virgil clutches him. Afterwards, the four go to a New Year's Eve party, where Ben and Stephanie kiss at midnight.
On a hot sunny day, Ben and Virgil discover Steve's body buried in the backyard. Ben debates on whether to report Steve's murder to the police. The guilt over Steve's murder is too much for Virgil, who attempts to commit suicide, but suffers potential brain damage in the process. At the hospital, Daric makes a flippant remark about Virgil's injuries that angers Han. Daric expresses concern about Han or Virgil revealing their secret, but Ben simply resolves to do nothing and walks away.
Separated from the group, Ben is alone at school. He encounters Stephanie one day on the way home. She asks him whether he has seen Steve lately, and expresses some concern that he has not called. They kiss, implying the resumption of their relationship. Ben's voice-over tells the audience that he has no idea about what the future holds, but all he knows is that there is no turning back.
- Parry Shen as Ben Manibag, a straight-A student who commits petty crimes to express himself in other ways.
- Jason Tobin as Virgil Hu, Ben's friend since the fourth grade.
- Sung Kang as Han Hu, Virgil's cousin.
- Roger Fan as Daric Loo, the violent, self-centered, senior class valedictorian.
- John Cho as Steve Choe, Stephanie's boyfriend.
- Karin Anna Cheung as Stephanie Vandergosh.
- Jerry Mathers as The Biology Teacher.
Lin said that the title "Better Luck Tomorrow" refers to how the film explores "the whole youth culture of today, specifically Asian-American, but also just the general mentality of teenagers today. I mean, I work with teenagers, I grew up in the 80s, and already it's very different, the mentality. You go to suburbia, you look at upper-middle-class-kids, and through the media they've literally adopted an urban-gangsta-mentality."
Connections to other films
Director Justin Lin later directed multiple films in The Fast and the Furious franchise, with Sung Kang also portraying a character named Han. The director and actor have both stated in interviews that they consider this to be the same character as the one in Better Luck Tomorrow, with that film serving as the character's origin story. While this connection is unofficial, many fans consider it to be canonical.
Roger Fan's Better Luck Tomorrow character is called Daric Loo. In Lin's Annapolis, he plays a character named Loo. In Lin's Finishing the Game, Fan plays a Bruce Lee clone named "Breeze Loo". Fan also makes a brief appearance in Lin's Fast & Furious.
Critical reception 
The film was rated "certified fresh" with an approval rating of 81% by the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 104 reviews with an average rating of 7/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "A promising work by Lin, the energetic Better Luck Tomorrow is disturbing and thought-provoking." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 67 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote "Lin is a talent to watch. There's a sting to this film that gets to you." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a full four-star-rating and wrote that it was a "disturbing and skillfully-told parable about growing up in today's America" and that Lin "reveals himself as a skilled and sure director."
Awards and film festivals
- Official Selection — Sundance Film Festival, 2002. In a question and answer session following a festival screening, in response to an audience member who asked director Lin if he thought it was irresponsible to portray Asian-Americans in such a negative light, Roger Ebert stood up and said, angrily, "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?'". And then he continued: "This film has the right to be about this people, and Asian-Americans have the right to be whatever the hell they want to be. They do not have to 'represent' their people." Ebert's approval of the film drew the attention of major studios, leading eventually to MTV's buying the film for distribution.
- Official Selection — Toronto International Film Festival, 2002
- Grand Jury Prize Nomination — Sundance Film Festival, 2002
- Independent Spirit Awards — John Cassavetes Award Nomination, 2004
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