For his second re-view for 10YA, Jolon Buchbinder takes another look at Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers about what happens in the final scene.
In 2003 I went to theSundance Film Festival with my parents. That year we saw mostly documentaries. One of the standout films was Better Luck Tomorrow. It was nice to see a film with almost no pre-festival buzz and no real stars in the cast. The screening was even in one of the smaller theaters. Even the festival didn’t really do that much for the film. After the screening, people loved it and word-of-mouth spread. It was bought by MTV Films and distributed by Paramount.
The film is the story of four friends who are all too smart for their own good. They are all overachieving high school students, destined for Ivy League colleges and are bored with their lives. They pull scams to get money and then start dealing drugs and also taking them. All the while the main character has a crush on a girl and is trying to woo her despite her tough boyfriend. Tragedy strikes toward the end of the film and all the characters have major decisions to make that will affect the course of their lives.
A major part of the publicity for this movie is that it features an all-Asian cast with many of them unknowns or even first time actors. The cast is surprisingly strong especially the lead, Perry Shen, and Sung Kang as the older brother of Shen’s best friend. The other nice thing about the film is that for a low-budget movie with a budget of just $250,000, it looks really good. The director Justin Lin, who would go on to direct a number of films in the Fast and the Furious franchise, really knows how to use a camera and show off the style that he later brought into his other films.
Having only seen the film the one time at the Sundance screening, I didn’t really remember a lot of scenes. I was struck by how slow the movie is. That’s not a bad thing as it is much more of a character piece than a plot-driven movie. I was also struck by the late arrival of some of the tragic events I remembered, which now kind of feel like filler. I suppose it makes sense as the characters need something to bring them back down from their podium. For most of the film the characters believe they are invincible, getting away with things. Something needed to happen to show them the truth.
Which brings me to the finalscene. When the film was released in theaters, the studio that bought it at Sundance insisted on a change. The final voiceover from the main character is different and it changes the whole tone of the ending. The characters get cocky, and when the tragic event happens, they bury it and still get away with it. By changing the ending and giving the main character some doubt about his future, it changes his character and changes who he was through the entire film. Previously getting away with things and not worrying about the consequences of his actions for the whole film, he is now suddenly worried about the future. It doesn’t make sense.
All that being said the film is very much worth watching. The characters are interesting and not your usual Hollywood teenagers. They do terrible things but are likeable and genuinely feel bad about what they do to other people. The characters are kind of like the ones in the movie Kids but they are smart and know how to get away with what they do. They also know that once they go to college they can get a good job and move on with their lives. It’s not that they don’t care about their future, they don’t care about their present. That is what the final scene is really about.
One final note: Apparently this movie has further connection to the Fast and the Furious franchise. Han, the character played by Sung Kang, appears in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and the upcoming sixth installment. To watch them in chronological order watch The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Better Luck Tomorrow, Fast & Furious, Fast Five and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.