Monday, March 31, 2008

Response: Better Luck Tomorrow

After hearing many people discuss how Better Luck Tomorrow was the first time they had seen Asian Americans portrayed in the media in a multidimensional way, I must admit I was kind of surprised when I finally saw the film myself. It's true that there was more depth of character to the protagonists of Better Luck Tomorrow, but it still seemed to me that many of the same stereotypes so often seen in media representations of Asian Americans were still present, if not reinforced. Most notably, although the protagonists engaged in violent crimes and so could not be said to be representing the "model minority" in the way it is typically represented, yet the movie did nothing to combat the notion that all Asian Americans are academically brilliant and hard-working. Every Asian American pictured fit those criteria; in fact, the only reason they were able to get away with everything they got away with was because their grades remained high and they remained involved in all of their various extracurricular activities. Granted, the stereotype has in some ways been subverted and it has clearly been complicated, but it has not gone away entirely.

On another note, while this film operated on one level to combat the stereotype of Asian Americans as meek and submissive, I felt that at several points it undermined this endeavor. Specifically I am thinking about the moments when the Asian American protagonists are juxtaposed with members of other racial/ethnic minority groups. For example, right on the heels of their so boldly confronting (and even pulling a gun on) a white student who makes fun of them, the protagonists are shown shying away from a confrontation with a car full of young Latinos who constitute a more dangerous opponent. Scenes like this suggest that our young protagonists are not so tough as they want to believe they are.

Yet, in hindsight, it seems to me that the choice not to completely override these sterotypes but to complicate them serves a greater purpose. A complete reversal of these stereotypes would result in a cast of hot-blooded, braindead slackers who are exceedingly difficult for the average teenager (who does care about getting into college and doesn't go around drawing guns on people) to relate to. Instead, Better Luck Tomorrow provides us with a cast of characters who many young people can identify with (at least to a certain extent--I must admit I liked Ben a lot until he starting sleeping with prostitues and bashing people's heads in). Although these characters share some stereotypically Asian American traits, yet they have transcended a definition on the basis of these traits alone.

In closing, one thing I noticed about this movie was that the basic premise (bright young teenagers turn to self-destructive behavior [crime, violence, drugs, etc.]) was not particularly innovative. After watching it, I vaguely felt like I had seen a number of movies with similar plots before. The only difference was that the only movies I could remember dealt with white teenagers. For me then, Better Luck Tomorrow's greatest achievement lied in taking a recognizable genre and inserting an Asian American cast, and in so doing making the point that Asian American youth are no different from youth of any other color or ethnicity (except perhaps in the racialized nature of the expectations they face).

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