A privileged, suburban high school overachiever almost certainly bound for a prestigious Ivy League college. Sound familiar?
That’s Ben (Parry Shen), the multi-talented, multi-faceted multi-tasker, Academic Decathlon superstar and star of Better Luck Tomorrow. While Ben’s not volunteering as a translator at the hospital, building his SAT vocabulary or working part-time at the local fast food joint, he’s pulling scams, dealing drugs and ruling a suburban community with his gang. Think of them—Ben and his buddies Virgil, Daric and Han—as the Honor Roll Mafia, overachievers at everything good and bad.
Not only is director Justin Lin’s film a complex, exhilarating exploration of issues that movies often gloss over—teen violence, for example—it’s also the first Asian-American film to be chosen by the Sundance Film Festival and the first to be distributed by MTV Films.
But the road to this success was a long one, and the future of Better Luck Tomorrow is still uncertain.
The Little Film That Could
As part of a national grass-roots campaign to publicize the movie, which opens today in select major cities, Lin gave a preview screening of his film at the Harvard Film Archive last month. The screening was so packed that the Harvard Asian American Association, which sponsored the event, had to turn people away from the doors of the theater.
It’s a long way to have come from the film’s humble beginnings.
Lin certainly hasn’t forgotten these, telling stories of enticing kid extras with free pizza and managing to stretch a shoestring budget to fund this project, which he says “came out of desperation.”
“I thought, ‘if I only get one chance to max out 10 credit cards, what would I do?’” he says.
After immigrating from Taiwan to the U.S. when he was nine, Lin and his family settled in southern California, where he later attended Cypress High School in Orange County. He admits many scenes in Better Luck Tomorrow were actually filmed at this location, ruefully acknowledging that the crew shot “wherever we could get away with it.”
“I had the luxury of time, because I had no money,” he says. “There are pros and cons to that. You know that everyone’s there for the right reasons, but you wonder, ‘How am I going to feed the crew?’”
That changed when judges chose Better Luck Tomorrow for dramatic competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a selection coveted by independent filmmakers around the world.
The “little film that no one knew about” generated a huge buzz at Sundance. Immediately after the film was screened, three different distribution companies approached Lin and offered to market it.
Stereotypes from Charlie Chan to Jackie Chan
Mainstream Hollywood was not built from risky business but from safe investments. All the acting and directing talent is nothing without opportunities to display it. This is Lin’s distinctly pragmatic view of the film industry, understandable since he couldn’t afford—literally—to be idealistic.