In films and television, Asian American men and women are not always featured in dominating roles. In fact, even current movies like Elysium, which is supposed to be a commentary on classism and racism, features the only Asian male as an IT guy. In Parrenas Shimizu’s, Straitjacket Masculinities, we understand that, “heterosexuality and manhood historically have been denied Asian American men [and] have become the terrain of struggle in which men claim the right to define and control their masculinity.” While we have had Asian men play in roles that try to redefine those struggles (such as Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee) it only sets another stereotype that Asian men can’t be masculine without knowing some sort of martial art…Justin Lin tries to find a balance between showing Asian American “masculinity” and vulnerability through his characters in Better Luck Tomorrow. However, once again, this idea is flawed when executed because of many small issues.
Rather than giving a long list explaining why I like, yet dislike, Better Luck Tomorrow I’ll summarize my reasons with this scene:
In this scene, Ben wants to quit his life of scams and go back to his normal life. In response, his friends give him a gun as a birthday present. The gun would represent the ideas in Better Luck Tomorrow. The movie really did try to send a powerful message; Asian American men are more than just straight A’s and being a good model minority (they can be badass too!). It also tried to redefine Asian American women. As Shimizu mentions, Stephanie has a lot of depth. She’s a girly flirty cheerleader, but an adoptee with White parents, aspires to be a cop, refuses to let Ben do all the group work, and may or may not be a porn star. Her being a cheerleader and possibly being a porn star sets us up for the Dragon Lady stereotype, but as we get to know her better, we realize that she is more than just that.
Although Better Luck Tomorrow has all these great messages put in, Justin Lin handles almost as well as Virgil handled his gun. While we see that Ben and his boys like breaking the law, drinking, and doing drugs, the main quality of their group is their insane intelligence. As one person had noted in class, they didn’t even need to check their answers when making cheat sheets, they just knew the answers. Additionally, they were still competing in It’s Academic and focusing on college applications. As for Stephanie, the big breaker for Asian American female gender roles, she just isn’t a dynamic character. While she ranks high on the infinity scale, she’s pretty much an object used for progressing the story. Rather than being the driver, she’s in the trunk and only brought out to stir up conflict or enhance drama.
Another issue I have about this film, which is represented in this one scene, is that the movie only features Asian Americans. Other ethnicities are definitely shown, but they all act in their own separate groups. There is no inter-racial mix between the characters. And if we’re trying to break racial boundaries, we probably shouldn’t do that by segregating the races. It’s true that films don’t usually contain an all Asian American cast (even movies like 21, which are based off of a group of Asian Americans, don’t feature Asian Americans). However, is that really how we should be responding back? By overcompensating?
Just as how everyone runs off on Virgil after he recklessly twirls his gun around, the audience also walks away from this movie not fully comprehending its entirety. In class, it was discussed that Stephanie’s character was not seen as a ground breaking character. We focused on her possibly being a porn star and the fact that she was submissive around Steven all the time. But after taking a long time to analyze and think about this film, one would realized Stephanie was a pretty interesting character. Better Luck Tomorrow showed the world that Asian Americans can be great directors, speak English well, and be great actors. But it definitely isn’t the answer to stereotypical gender roles. While it makes a great attempt at it, a general audience isn’t going to leave the theater pondering the struggles Ben had balancing masculinity and vulnerability (especially in an MTV sponsored film). So while this film contains a lot of great ideas, it shoots itself in the foot by trying to combat too many issues.