"I was actually intrigued that the ethnicities of the characters didn’t matter. Do you think the fact that they are Asians did matter or not?
It matters a lot in that it’s their experience; that’s the perspective audiences are going to share with the film. But at the same time, I made a conscious effort that I didn’t want them to have to explain why they need to exist onscreen. I think cinema is very backward. Every time you see an Asian face, or Asian American face, or even a Latino face or a gay face, they always have to be there for that reason.
You see a Native American, okay, it must be something spiritual. It’s film language, and it’s very backward. I don’t feel I have to explain myself every second of my life, and I don’t feel these characters need to either. I think by doing that, part of it was I wanted to stay very true to the teenagers, to the characters. A lot of times, I feel like you see teenagers onscreen, they’re like 'movie' teenagers. And this time, I tried very hard to portray and stay true to real characters, real people."
I think this excerpt gets at the difficulty of studying contemporary Asian American media representations. Are we supposed to read the character of Ben Manibag as the meek, emasculated Asian male? Or is it safe to assume that Ben is simply a character played by Asian actor Parry Shen and could easily have been played by a Caucasian, African-American, or Latino actor? As Justin Lin says, perhaps in Better Luck Tomorrow, there is no "reason" for the cast to be Asian. (Parry Shen has said: "People came up to me and said, 'After the first five minutes, I totally forgot you guys were Asian,' " he said. " 'Cause it has nothing to do with being Asian, it's universal stuff about ... kids. Not necessarily that they're bad or evil, [just] that they sometimes make wrong decisions.")If we can assume the second, is Better Luck Tomorrow still an Asian American film? Is it, in a sense, more Asian American because the characters are represented without stigma (or at least, attempted to be represented in that manner)?
One must wonder: would this film have done as well in the box-office, received as much acclaim, and been picked up by MTV films if it were made with a cast of unknown white actors? Is this line of questioning even fair? Or is it as silly as writing, "Would Brokeback Mountain have been as successful had it been a heterosexual love story?"