Directed by Justin Lin in 2002, Better Luck Tomorrow depicts Asian Americans in a way the mainstream media rarely do. It tells the story of four smart, studious high school students who deviate from their “normal” lives and end up getting involved in bad behaviors and criminal activities. Through the film, Lin presented to American society other possible images of Asian Americans. By letting the main character, Ben Manibag, narrate the film, he attempted to help viewers understand the struggle and dissatisfaction Asian Americans face when forced to live up to societal expectations.
Ben represents a stereotypical Asian American high schooler. Considered an overachiever by his peers, he prepares for the SAT diligently. On a daily basis, He expands his vocabulary through rote-memorization and recitation. He also actively participates in many school clubs and even joined the basketball team (although as a result of tokenism). The reason behind all the hard work is that, just like every other Asian student, he is determined to enter a prestigious Ivy League University. These aspects of Ben match images of Asian Americans publicized by the media and influenced by the dominant racial group, or hegemony. However, it is later revealed that under the skin of the perfect student is a rebellious teenager with nowhere to release his pressure and dissatisfaction.
When Steve Choe, Ben’s schoolmate, asks Ben if he feels happy about his achievements, Ben answers, “I don’t know.” And Steve approves his attitude by saying, “Fuck. That’s the most truthful thing I’ve ever heard.” Conversations like this demonstrate a different side of Asian American students and implicitly reject the model minority. Ben does not live up to the racial image, but instead he uses the societal expectations to disguise his true self. Evidence of his behavior includes his participation in the school-wide cheat-sheet operation, the beating and threatening of his white classmate, and, most serious of all, the killing of Steve. As the character’s actions become more extreme, it is easier to perceive the irony.
Society may not consider Lin’s portrayal of Asian Americans accurate or acceptable, but his film has already opened a discussion on racial stereotypes and ethnic identities, which seems like one of his goals.