I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Better Luck Tomorrow

tn_bltaka FAST AND FURIOUS ORIGINS: HAN

BETTER LUCK TOMORROW was not Justin Lin’s rookie film (that would be SHOPPING FOR FANGS, co-directed with Quentin Lee), but it was his buzzed-about Sundance film that got picked up by MTV Films and must’ve got him alot of meetings and what not. Next thing you know he’s directing Jordana Brewster in ANNAPOLIS and then what the hell, give him that third FAST AND THE FURIOUS movie, see what he can do with that, and then FAST 4, 5 and 6 and the world was changed forever and he almost did a TERMINATOR and a BOURNE and he’s actually doing a STAR TREK right now.

That trajectory started with this somewhat controversial teen crime movie. Narrated GOODFELLAS style, it’s the story of Ben Manibag (Parry Shen of the HATCHET trilogy), a Chinese-American student in a California suburb driven to succeed in school and get into a good college, but who also finds the time for decreasingly petty crimes with his friends. He’s employee of the month at the hot dog joint where he works, he practices free throws every day to get on the JV basketball team and vocabulary words to get perfect SAT scores, works as a Spanish translator at a medical clinic, organizes a litter pick-up crew for the local beach and is American history expert for his Academic Decathlon team. But also he pulls a fake return scam at the electronics store, TPs houses and starts selling seat cheats, then drugs, then starts carrying a gun.

Ben hangs out with skinny spaz Virgil (Jason Tobin, POUND OF FLESH), tall, Letterman-jacket-wearing (but for tennis, Ben points out) Daric (Roger Fan, RUSH HOUR), and Virgil’s way cooler cousin Han (Sung Kang). And yes, in case you haven’t heard, this is the same beloved character Kang played in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 3-6. Originally in TOKYO DRIFT he was supposed to be on the run form the events of this film (SPOILER: he becomes an accessory to murder), but of course as the series evolved it changed to where he was a fugitive for crimes committed in FAST 4-6.

But Han arrives fully-formed. Here’s the first shot of him:

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Still photo flashes during his introduction show him fixing his Mustang, punching his little cousin and in bed with two women at once. (Nothing about drifting.) I thought he was supposed to be the older cousin who’s graduated, so I was surprised to see him at high school. He’s way more suave and fashionable than the others, but also has a cooler head. The only time he ever loses it is at the end banging on the door and screaming when he thinks his cousin might’ve just shot himself, and also we can assume that him shaving his head at the end is a sign that he’s not taking it all in stride.

But in the pivotal scene when Daric pulls a gun on some asshole white jocks at a party, and Virgil joyfully stomps on them and eggs Ben into joining in, it’s Han that pulls them off and makes them leave. And as they’re driving away, and Virgil is giggling about “Fuckin’ A, that was better than sex!” like a scrawny potential O-Dog, Han looks over at another car and sees a menacing looking black man holding a machine gun. I think he knows that his friends are trying to live out a fantasy that they just absolutely will be way too weinery to be able to handle. They’re just some dumb kids, this isn’t A BETTER TOMORROW. Even Virgil makes fun of a guy for wearing a trenchcoat, saying he thinks he’s Chow Yun Fat.

You’re not supposed to want to be like these pricks, it is for sure a cautionary tale. But it can’t help but feel a little like a corny teen wish-fulfillment dream too. I can do well in school and go to the dance while I build my criminal empire like Scarface! It’s kinda silly, but then again it’s inspired by a real case known as “The Honor Role Murder” where some nice Asian kids planning a computer theft up and murdered one of their accomplices because they decided he was gonna betray them. The real guys were more villainous than in the movie, though. They were premeditated.

It’s not even close to as good of a movie as TOKYO DRIFT, but it has alot in common with it. It’s like a carless, Japanless practice run. You got teens involved in criminal organizations like adults but fighting over a girl like kids. Steve (John Cho – oh shit, is that how Lin got STAR TREK 3?) is a much less dickish antagonist than TOKYO DRIFT’s D.K. – in fact he seems like a nice guy to me – but he’s the rich kid who’s with the girl (Karin Anna Cheung, ABOMINABLE) who Ben gets to know and fall for and think he doesn’t treat her right. There’s also a part where Ben, like Lucas Black, has tissue stuffed in his nostril to stop a nosebleed. But his is from coke, not a car crash.

Though it’s probly lower budget and looks a little less glossy, it has a similar, flashy style to TOKYO DRIFT: lots of show-offy camera moves, 360 degree spins, fast-cut musical montages (including slow and fast motion walking through school sequences), all set to an eclectic soundtrack ranging from messy female punk rock to hip hop (including a DJ Shadow song [and thankfully no Kid Rock]).

And look at these compositions. Don’t these remind you of shots he’d use in the FAST AND FURIOUSes?

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Yeah, it’s a good looking movie. I’m surprised cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet still does small indie movies and hasn’t moved on to big studio stuff. Maybe it’s a personal choice.

Oh shit, and I almost forgot. Please note this line of narration here:

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Coincidence? I think fuck not. Justin Lin may not have known where his career was going, but Han had the whole thing planned from the beginning.

By the way, something about Han. In the FAST movies he’s constantly snacking. In this one he’s snacking at the beginning, the rest of the time he’s smoking. I didn’t even think about it at first, but this is actually mentioned in FAST FIVE when he and Giselle are first working together. Giselle asks him when he quit smoking, correctly guessing that his constant need to snack is an oral fixation leftover from that habit.

You know who else is in this? Jerry Mathers from Leave It To Beaver. He even gets an “and Jerry Mathers as the Biology Teacher” credit. Since his character isn’t named I think a very, very, very strong argument could be made that he is for sure playing Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver and that the Cleaver family exists in the BETTER LUCK TOMORROW and FAST universe and that Eddie Haskell will probly be the villain in FAST 8 or 9.

But if his casting has a deeper meaning I think it’s that this is a movie taking a look behind the surface of that image of the all-American suburban middle class nice kid. The implication being that even The Beaver probly killed a guy and paid his friend $300 to let him bury him in his backyard, and if he was better at driving fast he’d be a legendary world-traveling street racer master thief, but he’s not so he’s hiding out as a high school biology teacher.

mp_bltAs in the FAST saga the criminals (SPOILER for BETTER LUCK TOMORROW and all FAST movies) get away with it. But in this case it’s a dark ending, because there’s nothing honorable about them. They don’t deserve to get away. They are not a very good family. One of them just snaps and goes too far. He’s just trying to protect his friends, maybe, but they shouldn’t be in this position anyway, holding a guy at gunpoint. Of course that can go wrong, you knuckleheads. And it seems like jealousy and senseless teen rivalry are a big part of it. I don’t even know what they had against that guy anyway.

It’s a story we’ve seen alot, the idea of the potential for violence inside all of us, or all of our friends, the guy who you want to keep it together who suddenly reveals that he’s a fuckin psycho. I think the more original and disturbing part is the character that takes charge when they realize their victim is still alive. Instead of saying “Thank God, it’s not as bad as I thought” and trying to get him to a hospital he leads the group in how to finish him off, talking them through it calmly like a doctor, repeatedly assuring that it will be okay. Creepy.

And on the surface it is okay, because nobody knows and he got the girl and they’re waiting for college. But the potential end of their Ivy League dreams is rotting away just beneath that roll-up green lawn, ready to be discovered, not far from all the little white kids chasing the ice cream truck. They could go down at any moment. Then nobody will give a shit about all those extracurricular activities on the college applications.

I don’t think BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (or B.L.T. for short) is that great of a crime saga, really, other than being stylistically energetic and technically impressive for a low budget movie from a fairly new director. But I do think it’s cool that there’s a movie with an all Asian-American cast that does just treat them as Americans. Their heritage plays into the expectations of their families and stuff, but the only stereotype is the overachieving student one that the movie is intentionally taking apart. I don’t know why you’d want to do this, but it could pretty much be recast with white dudes. Especially Virgil, he is definitely a type (hyper, porn-obsessed, delusional about his level of gangsta-ness) that is common in the white community. Probly not Han though. He’s one of a kind.

My point is that it’s cool that these actors got to play these roles and not just Asian Gang Member #2 or bit parts as doctors. We don’t need more movies about this subject matter, necessarily, but we need more Asian-American movies about all different topics. And we need more Sung Kang.

(I guess Sung Kang likes doing stuff with titles similar to John Woo movies)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 at 12:29 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Better Luck Tomorrow”

  1. I think the best thing about this movie was that now legendary incident at Sundance where somebody at a screening was giving Lin shit for making this, and Roger Ebert made a impromptu defense and shut that guy up.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSzP9YV3jbc

  2. I remember reading about that exchange but only recently saw the video. I wish it was in defense of a better movie. I agree with Vern that it’s not a good crime saga, it’s junior-league GOODFELLAS all the way. Which is disappointing because I think the makers had an opportunity to really distinguish themselves and shed some real insight into a certain aspect of the Asian-American experience but just kept veering off into some ridiculous tangents. Little things that gnaw away at its credibility are things like setting an Academic Decathlon competition in Las Vegas, Ben’s growing cocaine dependance and his near-miraculous dropping of said habit, and then there’s the surname of Stephanie’s family: Vandergosh. This may well be a real Dutch surname but it’s placement in this movie makes it out like a glib joke about square, uptight upper middle-class Caucasians that would be too obvious even for THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR.

    All that being said I’m glad Justin Lin and Sung Kang found their groove with the F&F series. Those have been fun.

  3. I didn’t mention in the review that it kind of surprised me that all this was supposed to happen in a span of 4 months. But I never thought the name Vandergosh was supposed to be a joke, so Fresh Prince of Bel-Air might go over my head.

  4. You know Vern, I could very well be wrong. It may not have been intentional, and I’m sure the writers have plausible deniability, but that name just struck me as weird. Vandergosh. To me, I hear some variation of gosh or golly and that invokes(to use another sitcom) the sort of expression used by a Ned Flanders-type. That’s just what stuck in my mind 12 years after seeing it.

  5. I don’t necessarily disagree with the criticisms here, but I still think this is an excellent movie with some genuinely great moments. That part Vern mentioned with the “real” gangsters (who I thought were also Asian) pulling up next to the main characters it put together so well, and I also liked the simple but effective use of the yearbook photos at the end to communicate how the guys are doing in the aftermath of their crime. The movie has a great sense of energy and Lin’s ability to handle different tones is apparent here.

    Also, Han in this movie and “Tokyo Drift” is much cooler than the Han from “Fast Five” and “Fast and Furious 6.”

  6. The Undefeated Gaul

    April 4th, 2015 at 7:52 am

    FYI, Vandergosh? Not even close to sounding like a real Dutch name.

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