This article was written by Dino-Ray Ramos and originally posted on The Tracking Board.
When the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival announced Justin Lin’s 2002 drama Better Luck Tomorrow as their opening night film to celebrate its 15th anniversary, it seemed like a bold move considering a film festival usually opens with a buzzy Hollywood title or a brand new project with a huge name attached. Instead, Visual Communications, the media arts organization that has coordinated the event for the past 33 years, took note of the social climate of whitewashing (see: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell) and decided to set Better Luck Tomorrow to open the fest. The move not only sparked nostalgia for independent filmmaking but put a spotlight on the groundbreaking film that still resonates when it comes to diversity and inclusion in Hollywood.
When the film was released 15 years ago at Sundance, it was the epitome of an indie film with a budget of $250,000, a relatively unknown director at the time star and a cast with no marquee names. John Cho was simply known as “the MILF guy” from American Pie and Sung Kang had yet to be inducted into the Fast and Furious family. The film also starred Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Roger Fan, and Karin Anna Cheung, actors who weren’t in the pool of teen-oriented movies of the time. Oh yeah, it was also an Asian American-led cast. And since it wasn’t a film about martial arts, a foreign film about Eastern mysticism, or another film that fuels into on-screen Asian stereotypes, Better Luck Tomorrow was — and still is — kind of a big deal.
Better Luck Tomorrow (aka BLT) was released around the same time I graduated college. I was an idealistic Asian American student — and by idealistic, I mean militant. I was the president of the Filipino Student Association (two terms, mind you) and very involved in the Filipino-American community. I constantly felt the need to “fight the power” with my slam poetry and to bring the constant oppression of Asian Americans and minorities to everyone’s attention. Yes, I was THAT kind of person — the kind of person who blurred the lines of cultural appreciation and cultural vanity. That said, when I learned of BLT, I was excited. To see a predominantly Asian cast in a movie that wasn’t a “for-the-people” indie or something of The Joy Luck Club variety was totally unheard of. What made it even more appealing was that this was an “Asians gone bad” movie about a group of over-achieving high school seniors who dive into the world of drugs and crime in the suburbs of SoCal. It took the stereotypical “model minority” narrative of Asian teens and flipped it on its head. I was immediately sold from the trailer. Then I watched the movie. My feelings were… mixed, to say the least.
There’s a certain amount of Asian guilt that I feel for not being 100 percent invested in an Asian-centric project. With BLT, it wasn’t that I absolutely loathed it, but that I wanted more. Keep in mind, I was ALL ABOUT Asian American power at the time. I wanted BLT to take it to the extreme. I had no concept of boundaries or limits. I was a rebel and as aggressive and violent as the movie was, I wanted it to take it over the top and say “F*CK YOU!” to everyone. I was an angry Asian man — a very angry Asian man.
Fast forward 15 years later to the opening night of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and my idealistic, militant mentality has simmered down and I have learned to control my angry Asian man attitude. I haven’t watched the film since the release and as I sat in the Egyptian Theater to watch the original cut of the film shown at Sundance in 2002 (on actual film — none of that digital B.S.), there is a part of me that feels the same way I did in 2002. I was excited, but at the same time, I braced myself to be haunted by that feeling of “It wasn’t Tarantino-grade edgy enough for me!” disappointment.
When the credits rolled, I realized that 15 years ago I was expecting waaaaaay too much from this movie which is probably why I felt the way I did. Plus, the fact that I was a slam poet who was too idealistic for his own good that wore Jnco jeans on the daily (which, by the way, make a cameo in the film) probably factored into my irrational first impression. The film, despite the fashion choices and the use of dated technology (beepers, pint-sized Nokia phones with — GASP! — actual buttons and no touch screens), was and still is an amazing film that shifted gears when it came to a type of different Asian narrative — a narrative that mainstream audiences weren’t used to. This was very evident in a frequently told story about its premiere at Sundance in 2002 when, during the Q&A, an audience member stood up and asked Lin if he thought it was irresponsible to portray Asian-Americans in such a negative light to which iconic film critic Roger Ebert stood up and angrily defended the movie “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?’”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.”
With the combination of Ebert’s praise and the film’s general groundbreaking awesomeness, BLT landed on the Hollywood’s radar. As a result, it put Lin on the map as a sought-after director who would go on to lead the Fast and Furious renaissance with Kang starring. And of course, it helped further John Cho’s career as one of the top actors in Hollywood.
While watching the film, I realized how of the time BLT was. The filmmaking techniques that paralleled MTV-generation style spoke highly of not only Lin’s aesthetic but was a distinct snapshot of independent cinema of the late ’90s and early ’00s. It was nostalgic but also endearing in that it’s a bold style that’s fun, edgy and has a personality that lacks in many of today’s film. Admittedly, I was wary about whether or not BLT would age well — and it does.
Even so, there is something very bittersweet about the 15th anniversary of Lin’s groundbreaking film. When the film first came out, it made a huge impression with critics, audiences, and the box office (it raked in nearly $4 million at the domestically). What could have been a piece of cinema that blazed the trailer for similar Asian American films, eventually faded into the background. Fortunately, it opened the doors for Lin and the cast, but still, you can’t help but think why mainstream Hollywood didn’t see this as an opportunity to tackle different perspectives from the Asian American experience.
It’s not that there haven’t been strides in diversity and inclusion in Hollywood since 2002. Movies like Moonlight, Spa Night, Creed, and Tangerine made a significant impression in theaters while shows like Atlanta, black-ish, Jane the Virgin, Insecure, Orange is the New Black, and One Day at a Time have added some nuance to the TV landscape when it comes to people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. For the Asian American community, there’s Justin Chon’s upcoming L.A. riots pic Gook as well as Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians — which is stacked with an Asian American cast. On the TV side of things, we have the hit shows Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken — the first Asian-centric sitcoms since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in 1995. There is a rise in representation, but the significant gaps in time are telling of Hollywood’s openness to Asian American-led narratives. Fresh Off the Boat was created 20 years after All-American Girl and we are just now seeing the rise of Asian American-centric films…15 years after Better Luck Tomorrow. Celebrating Lin’s film is a reminder of how far Hollywood has come when it comes to diversity and inclusion and a reminder of how far we have to go.
In addition to being a Film Critic and Reporter for the Tracking Board, Dino-Ray Ramos has also written for Vogue, Queerty, and Entertainment Tonight. He is also the host of the Off White Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @dinoray.