reviewed by Marci Miller
Every now and then a movie comes out of nowhere and packs a whallop that’s all the more powerful because it’s so unexpected. So it is with Better Luck Tomorrow, a low-budget independent film with unknown actors that’s been creating big-heat buzz.
Luck is dark, violent and shocking, a tale about greed and the seduction of evil. Though seemingly related to the Southern California hothouse world of affluent Asian American teenagers, the film transcends categorization, and takes on mythic proportions. You leave the theater shaking your head, wondering where the heck did this masterfully crafted, compelling movie come from? What strange factors of luck and brilliance converged to create it? Most importantly, who is director Justin Lin (Shopping for Fangs) and what will we see from him next?
Luck opens with a modern twist on classic film noir — the cell phone on a buried body in a shallow grave keeps ringing. Director Lin has immediately set the delicate balance between fascination and repulsion that will keep weaving itself throughout the movie.
On the surface, this is the story of super-bright, overachieving teenagers who are completely without adult supervision or influence. The lack of adults is almost spooky: Never once does a parent appear in a scene, while teachers and bosses exist in some invisible off-screen universe. The only real adult presence in the movie is Jerry Mathers, the grownup Beaver from the all-American TV classic Leave to Beaver. Mathers plays one 30-second scene as a desiccated biology teacher who sets destiny on its inexorable track by switching students’ seats.
Ben Manibag (Parry Shin, Game Day) plays an appealing 16-year-old boy who, like most of his overly ambitious friends, slam-dunks life with activities so his high-school resume will be impressive enough to get him into a big-name college. Ben struggles to get on the basketball team even though he’s not a good player; he joins every club he can squeeze into his lunch hour. He’s one of those kids the parents of other kids are always holding up as a good example. Yet one more A+ on a paper can hold only so much fascination for a boy who already has a few hundred.
A few other outstanding students — Daric Loo (Roger Fan, TVs Karaoke Nights) and Han (Sung Kang, Antwone Fisher) — have learned to escape their boring excellence with something more exciting: crime. At first they just sell cheat sheets. Then they progress to stealing the new computer equipment from the school storage room. Next it’s drugs and stolen property from off campus. One step at a time, adrift without spiritual values or parents who care, the boys sink deeper into the search for the next thrill. Violence lurks just under the surface, particularly in the volatile Virgil (Jason J. Tobin (Yellow). His friends give Ben a present for his 17th birthday — a brand new, shiny, fully loaded handgun.
All this time, Ben keeps trying not to fall in love with Stephanie (Karina Anna Chueng, Karaoke Nights) and ignore his seething jealousy of her boyfriend, Steve (John Cho, Yellow). But that proves impossible. The die has already been cast; the nature of luck doesn’t change in midstream. No matter how intensely it’s yearned for, the redemptive power of a young woman’s love comes too late.