Monday, March 31, 2008

We Need More Than Better Luck Tomorrow

I found Better Luck Tomorrow to be a really interesting movie because the types of characters embodied by Virgil, Ben, Daric and Han were the very type of male characters I encountered among Asians around my age in New York City, where I grew up. Each of them, in trying to fit into society in America, revealed some of the limitations on Asian American identity that exist in America. The four Asian male characters in the movie represent the main Asian male identities I was familiar with growing up: the straight arrow Asian, studying hard and following rules towards a widely respected ideal of success; the somewhat "whitewashed" and manipulative Asian, who does what is needed to push for his own goals, embodied by Daric; the "cool" Asian, silent, strong, with a hidden temper and a willingness to break rules, embodied by Han; and the smart Asian who wants respect and to be cool, embodied by Virgil.

Characters like Ben for the most part accept the model minority stereotype, and try to find success in their lives by walking the paved road. Daric too tries to find success through education and overachieving, but he does so through different means; he does so by accumulating leadership positions in "white" clubs, like the newspaper, the environmental club, and quiz bowl. In taking up positions usually occupied by white leadership, Daric is also trying to reach success by means largely defined by white society, just like Ben. Han however, lives his life largely in rejection of white standards, and is successful I think, by not fulfilling the expectations of white society; he is an academic delinquent, commits scams, cheats, but at the same time, as an Asian, I can't help but respect Han, because he is independent of the burden of "white" success. Finally, there is Virgil, who is cut largely from the same cloth as Ben is, but also wants to break away from a strictly white society paved life and stereotype, evidenced by his affinity for his cousin Han.

It is Virgil with whom I sympathize most in the movie, because I think his ongoing struggle to be both academically successful, which is associated with whiteness, and be thuggish rebel at the same time, represents a struggle that many contemporary Asian males go through. To be too devoted to classes, grades, and exams is to fit into a white society defined stereotype. To aspire for high positions in clubs and for leadership positions seems too much like trying to be white. At the same time, it is also hard to be the delinquent rebel, who is respected, but at the cost of deliberately forgoing a fulfilling of one's full potential. In the end, Virgil doesn't seem to garner much respect from either side, because he is always seen as being a poser on both sides, yet these "sides" shouldn't have to exist in the first place, as they are both responses to white society defined roles for Asians. I think it says a lot that Virgil ended up being the one that tried to kill himself, because unlike the other characters, Virgil did not have his own crowd to return to after their Chinese gang basically broke down, when in reality, there is no reason why he had to belong to a specific crowd to be respected. The lesson I learned from watching Virgil is that Asian Americans should value themselves as individuals, not in response to the model minority stereotype, because as it is, the vicious cycle of trying to fit into or to vehemently fight stereotypes only leaves the ones who refuse to choose, as outsiders, when in fact, the independent individuals are the ones that one could say most embody the ideas which form the very fabric of American society, such as the ideal of the self made men.

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