Dark gem: 'Better Luck' is exhilarating

    By now you’ve heard of the film: the awards it has won at the Toronto and the Sundance film festivals, the push for it to pass from independent to mainstream, the controversy over its Asian representation, and Roger Ebert’s defense and praise of director Justin Lin’s unique vision.

    Courtesy of MTV Films

    Forget all the buzz and the fact that MTV, which was behind “”Jackass: the Movie”” and the Britney Spears movie “”Crossroads,”” is the distributor. “”Better Luck Tomorrow”” stands on its own terms, and it more than passes the test.

    A film that can be loosely described as darkly humorous and slickly violent, “”Better Luck Tomorrow”” tells the story of Ben (Parry Shen) and his three buddies on the cusp of adulthood in their Orange County high school exploits. From the opening scene, BLT engages viewers with its knowing humor. When Ben and Virgil relax on a sunny grass lawn, talking about early admissions, Virgil says he can’t wait to “”get out of this hellhole”” and meet hot, brainy chicks in college.

    Young adults, especially those in college with fresh memories of high school, can readily identify and laugh with the triumphs and trials of Ben’s pack. Especially satisfying is the sense of recognition and humor Asian find in a film that at last tells a view of their high school experience in true-to-life details, like the obnoxious overachiever Daric (Roger Fan), who is president of practically every school club.

    Asian females will appreciate the strong, three-dimensional character of Stephanie Vandergosh, who is both a cheerleader and an honors student, an Asian and an American (happy with her adopted Caucasian parents), and aspires to be a cop.

    But also from the very beginning, BLT proves to be more than meets the eye, when Ben and Virgil dig up a corpse. Lin doesn’t just perpetuate stereotypes and BLT is not just another teen movie. Slowly, Lin breaks the model minority facade to introduce the disturbing darkness underneath: escalating ethnic tensions, violence and crime. Ben’s world is not just filled with academic decathlon, basketball and unrequited love — it is also filled with drugs, guns and prostitutes. Characters whom we grow to love and admire, especially the charmingly vulnerable protagonist Ben, prove disturbingly flawed, while characters whom we come to despise surprise us with their humanity.

    Lin is also successful in creating a visually stylish film. Photographic snapshot introductions of the main characters add to the reckless energetic mood of the first half of the film. Lin’s use of SAT words as a segmenting and framing device creatively complements the themes of Asian identity and life lessons, while it plays with viewer’s expectations and furthers the plot. Then, there’s the stunning rotational tracking shot at the climax, a moment of movement and stillness in the dark, that lingers in the memory long after.

    The trailer proclaims “”don’t underestimate an overachiever,”” but there’s more to the film than its flashy tag line with its Asian edge. Lin urges us to look beneath the surface, by challenging our assumptions about Asians and giving us a film that defies being judged by its ethnic cast.

    With its sharp observational humor, startling violence and dark beauty, “”Better Luck Tomorrow”” holds its own as a haunting modern-American drama.

    Better Luck Tomorrow

    ****

    Starring Parry Shen, Roger Fan Now Playing

    Rated R

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