Better Luck Tomorrow seems to both challenge and reaffirm the stereotype of the model minority. Ben, Virgil, Daric, and Han are bright students exhausting all of their energies in ensuring that they’ll get into good colleges. Ben’s methods are particularly formulaic (his repetitions of SAT vocabulary definitions, for example), while Daric fills the role of the ubiquitous extra-curricular overachiever. The four friends are also members of the academic decathlon team, a clear symbol of nerd status in any high school story. Of course, the foursome deviates from this stereotype in rather extreme ways. The film ostensibly reveals what Asian-Americans are really like; yet the fact that it preserves these nerdy and somewhat mechanical characteristics seems to me like an affirmation this part of the stereotype holds true. It’s as if the film says, “We may be awkward, sexually inexperienced, and geeky, but we can be just as reckless as the next teenager”-- not an terribly comforting tagline.
That said, Ben is certainly a far cry from Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong. He’s a well-rounded and believable character. The simple fact that he is the protagonist rather than a source of comic relief or some other kind of typified background character is a significant step away from other stock Asian characters.
However, as was the case in Flower Drum Song, there are few non-Asian characters in Better Luck Tomorrow. It’s interesting to consider how the film would have been different if Stephanie or her boyfriend had been white. I think the image of a group of Asians brutally murdering a white man would probably have been too offensive for MTV-- it would perpetuate the image of the savage, dangerous yellowman. And if Stephanie had been white? In Sixteen Candles, the Long Duk Dong’s crush on Molly Ringwald’s character is a source of comic relief-- as if scoring a white girl is some kind of absurd dream, some prize elevated above the rest.
Really, it’s unfortunate that the different races that Stephanie could have been would signify pretty different implications. If she were white, Ben’s pining may have suggested that whiteness is valued above other races. If she were black or hispanic, the film would have been about multi-cultural relations within the minority community, about third-world solidarity. An Asian Stephanie perhaps suggests that Asian is the only spectrum that Ben can conquer. I can imagine that, if I were the filmmaker, these radically different significances would become frustrating to me. After all, I think Stephanie is supposed to fill the standard role of the female love object in a typical (read: white-led) high school movie-- she is a cheerleader, after all. But in order to create an Asian equivalent of a white high school movie, it seems as if the director has had to create a new Asian universe within which the narrative can operate. As an Asian-American that didn’t grow up in New York or California, I’d like to see more Asian-American films that showcase more provocative interactions between Asians and whites-- something more true to my own experiences.