Director Justin Lin Courts Crossover Success

Better Luck Tomorrow Director Hits the Festival Circuit

Outside the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco's Japantown, a crowd has gathered in hopes of scoring standby tickets to a sold-out screening. It isn't Episode II: Attack of the Clones or Spider-Man that these fans are waiting for but a much-anticipated Asian-American coming-of-age film, Better Luck Tomorrow. As showtime approaches, the young writer and director of the film, Justin Lin, hurriedly sidesteps filmgoers to enter the theater, a bemused look cloaking his face.

Since its enthusiastic reception a few months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival, the buzz surrounding Better Luck Tomorrow has grown steadily. The movie follows four Asian-American high school students from the cushy suburbs of Orange County who hatch what they think is the perfect crime. Of course, their plan goes horribly awry, and in the aftermath, where the movie begins, the narrator begins to reveal the events that set up the shocking climax. It's a grim film that combines the angst-ridden realism and acerbic humor of a John Hughes movie with the increasingly violent one-upmanship of wanna-be wise guys (think Breakfast Club meets Goodfellas). If these characters are members of a model minority, it's some twisted, Bizarro-land version of one.

After the film's third and final screening at Sundance, one white audience member stood up during the Q&A to chastise Lin for his negative portrayal of Asian Americans, exclaiming, "Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?" In a moment sure to find its way to the DVD extras, the film critic, Roger Ebert, climbed on top of his chair to defend Lin's artistic choices. "You would never make a comment like that to a white filmmaker," countered Ebert to a crowd astonished at the exchange.

The controversy illuminated the persisting expectations facing many filmmakers of color, both from within their communities and outside them, an expectation Lin dismisses. "I don't like to do what others tell me to do," he says. The only obligation Lin feels compelled to keep is the obligation to "stay true to his characters and to explore the issues [they face]."

So far, the soft-spoken 30-year-old's instincts—and his penchant for taking risks—have been on target. While attending film school at UCLA, Lin co-directed 1998's Shopping for Fangs, an Asian-American comedy that received strong critical notices while playing on the indie and arthouse circuit.

To make Better Luck Tomorrow, Lin bankrolled production with credit cards and loans from family and friends, most notably a timely contribution from rapper MC Hammer. Following a complete rewrite of the first draft, Lin decamped to Las Vegas, spending four days further tinkering with the screenplay. Fueled on caffeine and the Vegas air, he wrestled with the language, eventually emerging from his hotel room, working draft in hand.

That kind of determination paid off handsomely at Sundance, where Better Luck Tomorrow played before dozens of influential critics and studio execs. Three well-received screenings and a flurry of business meetings later, Lin secured an offer from MTV Films: just under $1 million for the film's distribution rights. An offer to direct a future picture for the Paramount-owned studio sealed the deal.

Golden Boy

The director that fellow young Asian-American indie filmmaker Gene Cajayon calls "the Golden Boy" is in person rather unstriking. His short, swept back hair could use a trim. Sideburns along with thick black-framed glasses give only a hint of his artistic pedigree. His youthful visage does not look far removed from the high school students who inhabit his film.

While Lin insists Better Luck Tomorrow isn't autobiographical, the parallels are plentiful. The movie takes place in Orange County; Taiwan-born Lin grew up in Buena Park, home of Knott's Berry Farm and the heart of the suburban enclave. The main characters are second generation, middle-class Chinese-American high school overachievers, surely a type Lin emulated or encountered growing up. The sensitive main character, Ben (played by Parry Shen), acts at some level as Lin's and, by extension, the audience's proxy in this universe. Ben is smart, but not smart enough to avoid being lured into criminal jeopardy by the ringleader of several ne'er-do-wells, the valedictorian Daric. Under Daric's tutelage, Ben gets involved in drug dealing, petty theft, and intimidation. Model minority indeed.

Episodic vignettes chronicle the characters at different stage of their moral slide, a slide that eventually resolves in an explosive climax. In the beginning, camaraderie and blind ambition tie the characters together; by the end, when the lines of their moral limits are drawn, the bonds unravel. For Ben, the potential consequences of the gang's final plan force him to carefully evaluate his stomach for the game.

In the Hughes tradition, Lin finds real traction in well-worn ground and recasts oft-glossed-over archetypes—the overachiever, the jock, the clown, and the cheerleader—with genuine emotions and dilemmas. Unlike their Breakfast Club brethren, however, Lin's characters are completely untethered and careen off the cliff into the subculture of drug use, dealing, and petty theft. As the camera whip zooms around the action and scenes unfold in frenetic jump cuts, time lapses, and slow-motion replays, viewers get a taste of the high octane fuel these characters are burning.

For all its camera trickery, Better Luck Tomorrow is ultimately a character-driven movie in which strong performances abound. Besides Parry Shen, there is Roger Fan who plays the alpha male, Daric, and newcomer Karin Anna Cheung as Stephanie the cheerleader. Lin coaxes performances more confident and measured than those exhibited in his earlier work, Shopping for Fangs, which he co-directed with fellow UCLA film student, Quentin Lee. There are other differences. While Better Luck Tomorrow grounds itself in realism, in Shopping for Fangs, a mild-mannered accountant turns into a werewolf. Lin himself makes only passing mention of his role in Fangs, suggesting that he sees Better Luck Tomorrow as more in line with his artistic instincts.

Making the Grade

While working within the Asian-American film bubble, Lin's movie owes less to the cinematic lineage of Flower Drum Song or Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing than to seminal teenage movies that portray the relationships of young males with complexity and sensitivity. The influences of movies like 1982's The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club, and Stand By Me are not hard to recognize. Nevertheless, Lin's approach contrasts sharply with the Hollywood school of teen drama, represented most recently by freshman director Jake Kasdan's sunny Orange County. In Hollywood's vision of the suburban hothouse, teenagers skateboard, surf, and enjoy a worry-free, upperclass white existence. Better Luck Tomorrow's multicultural cast and its indie film aesthetic gives the OC a rougher, less polished exterior.

Those same idiosyncrasies only fuel apprehension about Better Luck Tomorrow's box office potential. Can Better Luck Tomorrow compete with Hollywood's dream factory for the attention of mainstream teen audiences? Other recent Asian-American films with mainstream appeal have not been able to breakthrough. Cajayon's The Debut, which opened last year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, also received accolades for its coming-of-age portrayal of a Filipino-American teenager whose aspirations conflict with his tradition-bound family. Without a major distribution deal, Cajayon has spent the last year and a half distributing the film himself, hitting the road to visit indie-friendly markets and build word of mouth.

Armed with MTV's marketing muscle, Lin hopes to exceed expectations and transcend the "ghetto" label. His willingness to stoke controversy has made him a hot commodity in Hollywood and a director to notice. Scheduled for release in 2003, Better Luck Tomorrow will likely bolster Lin's image as an iconoclast. However labelled, Lin hardly has time to pose. For now, filmmaker sounds just right.

Pay, Geoffrey. "Director Justin Lin Courts Crossover Success." Monolid. Summer 2002: 34-37. Print.