BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
starring Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan
screenplay by Ernesto Foronda & Justin Lin & Fabian Marquez
directed by Justin Lin
starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Elden Henson, Don Cheadle
screenplay by Michael Bacall & Blayne Weaver
directed by Jordan Melamed
directed by Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak
by Walter Chaw Justin Lin's feature debut caused something of a minor firestorm at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was charged that Asian-American stereotypes of the "model minority" were being indulged by Better Luck Tomorrow's tale of honor-roll gangsters amuck in SoCal. The truth is that the picture, for all its narrative faults, is a complicated exploration of what happens when the societal stereotypes imposed on any minority are bought into and manipulated by the minority itself--the sort of double-edged sword that marginalizes even as it shields. (With African-Americans, a possible opportunity to work beneath the radar of "white" society; with Asian-Americans, the possibility to deflect suspicion of criminal activity with straight "A"s and memberships to the all-geek extracurricular club pantheon.) A scene following a party crash and armed intimidation comes close to instant classic status as our quartet of first-generation ABC hoods pulls up alongside Hispanic gang-members of a more traditional Southern California breed, the cultural tension erupting in a recognition of racial transference that borders on brilliant. It's the traffic jam scene from Office Space transferred onto an urban crime drama.
A breakthrough film for several young Asian performers, the problems with Better Luck Tomorrow begin and end with the passivity of protagonist Ben (Parry Shen), who, when asked to provide the violent plot point that propels the film to its conclusion, breaks out of character so mortally the film never recovers. A strong sense of style, an observant screenplay, and the sort of performances that elevate standard fare into the realm of memorable buoy the picture over many of its rough patches and redundancies, but Lin needs to squeeze out his narrative with greater urgency and balance: long periods of high school drama and exposition separated by badly justified epiphanies undermine the picture's coherence and flow. The picture's relative uniqueness is what intrigues and compels, marking Better Luck Tomorrow as important, if not ultimately entirely successful.
Complaints noted, compare Lin's debut with Jordan Melamed's, Manic. With its tale of juvenile hiking in a nuthatch, the convenient path would seem to be to describe Manic as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for adolescents, yet the question arises (and it's a fair one) of whether it's ever possible to make an asylum movie that focuses on pills, free-spirited catalysts, and quiet Native Americans without drawing such comparisons. Thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Lyle, the would-be R.P. McMurphy, the picture is anything but unique, another in a long line of films that owe their existence to their adherence to tested formula--and owe their long exile on the shelf to that same devotion. (Manic was finished in 2001 and is only now seeing a staggered release.)
Nice performances all around (particularly by a slumming Don Cheadle, the always-interesting Zooey Deschanel, and an eternally underestimated Elden Henson) do little to take the sting away from a Stand By Me comic book superhero debate and awkward references to Mary Higgins Clark and Albert Camus. Worst, Van Gogh, the patron saint of depressed white kids, plays a pivotal role in the picture's playground epiphanies--the venerable manic painter would, however, probably approve of Melamed's ADHD-afflicted handheld camera style, which resembles The Blair Witch Project's look without that film's justification for said look. Melamed is so intrusive in his own film that he almost manages to disguise the fact that Manic's conclusion seems to suggest that popping pills in a repressive and broken state institution is the answer. McMurphy lolls in his grave.
The idea that narcotizing mental illness is sometimes the best introduction to treatment--if not the treatment itself--is tested in Angela Christlieb and Stephan Kijak's documentary Cinemania. Following the sad day-to-day of another ensemble of lost souls, like Better Luck Tomorrow and Manic and their tales of teens "self-medicating" on a steady prescription of violence, crime, and serious drugs, Cinemania examines a quintet of miserable pilgrims who spend all of their time planning intricate schedules and attending endless movie revivals in New York's film utopia. The revelation that their diet is carefully monitored to prevent the need to evacuate mid-screening is only slightly more disturbing than the genuinely intimidating amount of knowledge acquired by each of the obsessive-compulsives on display.
Not Errol Morris in its understanding of the universality that informs eccentricity, not even PBS in its inability to dig beneath the surface of their movie-obsession to find a chord of humanity to transform Cinemania into something other than a freak show, the docu relies on its audience's own desire for schadenfreude. The picture raises disturbing questions about cruel laughter in a way that the superior American Movie did as well, but where that picture identifies a very American, very torrid love affair with the incandescent golden cult of filmmaking, Cinemania pokes fun at folks disguising themselves in order to sneak into theatres from which they've been barred. It's the Trekkies school of cult documentary: unkind and interesting mainly for the degree to which we seem uncomfortable examining our similarities to the fugitive kind, content to cast them as scapegoats and outcast clowns instead. Originally published: May 16, 2003.