Better Luck Tomorrow , a new thriller distributed by MTV and directed by Justin Lin, has a fascinating subject, good performances, and a lot of energy. In spite of the evident abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera, I found the movie rather pretentious and cold. Lin’s film, which got a lot of attention at Sundance for its predominantly Asian-American cast, is set among a group of stressed-out, Orange County high-school seniors who are feverishly padding their college applications with extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs. Benjamin, the amoral over-achiever who narrates the drama, begins by writing cheat sheets for his less academically-minded fellow students, then moves on to selling drugs, and then to fencing stolen goods. Violence gives him caché among the other (mostly white) kids at school; semi-automatic weapons and cocaine offer a jolt of adrenaline no Biology pop quiz or Academic Decathlon can match. But when things go too far and someone is killed, Ben begins to wonder if he should he inform the police. Will murder affect his ability to get into an Ivy League college?
Better Luck Tomorrow liberally borrows character nuances and camera moves from a number of contemporary gangster melodramas, both American and Chinese. It’s title salutes the classic HK crime film, A Better Tomorrow , and one of the principles even sports a black trench-coat like Chow Yun Fat wore in that film; its mix of speeded-up and slow motion photography during its crime scenes are often reminiscent of the work of Martin Scorsese. There is a chilling sequence, after one of their earliest crimes, when Ben recognizes himself and his buddies in the threatening faces of some African American, Uzi-toting gangsters in a passing car. As a stand-alone scene, it’s quite provocative–but the complicated racial and class dynamics behind such disturbing images were all but lost for me in the over-extended, hyperactive Better Luck Tomorrow . The moment, powerful as it is, became merely another flourish in a movie of flourishes. Better Luck ‘s self-satisfied movie quoting points to a thematic cul de sac: does it mean to satirize the competitiveness of college admission practices, à la Risky Business ? Or is it commenting on how even the most academically successful kids are marked by race and forced into a criminal marginality vis à vis white culture, à la Menace II Society ?