Justin Lin’s Tokyo Drift was a completely different beast to its predecessors: it was a story about an American teenager from a broken home; unable to fit in within the US, he moves to Japan where he is even more alienated than before. While the Japanese is shonky at times, the plot stumbles on occasion, and the movie repeats the oversimplifying cliche supposedly summarising Japanese culture “deru kuhi wa utareru” (the nail that sticks out gets pounded in), it’s a strangely meditative experience that culminates in a race down a mountain road in the dark. Lin turned into a Hollywood action-movie director for the fourth movie, and apparently the fifth, but before all that, he created Better Luck Tomorrow.
Better Luck Tomorrow is the story of Asian over-achievers, dissatisfied with their lives, who fall into criminal activity. The movie is like a Greek tragedy: the character flaws of the participants are the cause of their troubles.
The film is loosely based on the 1992 murder of Stuart Tay in California; it was saved by emergency funding by MC Hammer. The direction is fast-paced, with snappy music, spinning camera-work, fadeouts, jump-cuts, and frequent voiceovers on top of illustrative (and usually comical) scenes. The film moves swiftly from event to event but takes the time to linger on significant scenes (eg Ben’s awkwardness). Never too long though, one of the best scenes is a slow dance that is surrounded by high-tempo club dancing.
Even within the high-achieving group, different personalities and roles emerge: Ben is unsure of himself (like most protagonists) and insecure about his masculinity, Virgil is a clown who repeatedly overcompensates for a sense of impotence, Daric is a highly intelligent sociopath, and Steve lacks something deep and significant under his suave, well-favoured existence. Here there are no adult role models, no one smart enough to give these individuals advice.
The free-wheeling structure of the story reminded me a lot of Election, where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. The ending is inconclusive, but there is a definite arc of discovery that all the characters go through.
I recommend this as an easy-to-watch, thought-provoking drama about a demographic rarely featured in films.