In Justin Lin’s teen crime-drama film, Better Luck Tomorrow, the discourse of sex and its portrayal of Asian American young men maintain hegemonic ideologies of race and masculinity.
Right from the beginning of the film, the main character Ben is perceived as a good student but socially inferior to more dominant males. He relents and agrees to allow a white jock to cheat off him during an exam. Ben is trying to get into the Ivy Leagues, and has the potential to achieve that. However, though he is more intelligent, the jock ends up getting the better end of the bargain by being able to do just as well as Ben without having to do any of the work. There is definitely a hierarchy of dominance, with the jock being able to be the alpha male and kick back and while somehow being able to make the Asian student serve him. He is seen as more masculine as a result while Ben maintains an image of docileness. Ben also allows himself to be a “benchwarmer” on the basketball team, believing he is still an important part of the team despite not being allowed to play. Despite Daric trying to convince him otherwise, that he is just the token Asian, Ben still allows himself to be perceived as not masculine enough to play; he acts as if his image is out of his control and that he is okay with it and has accepted it as a hegemonic identity.
Sex is also something that is always constantly in the background yet at the same time so unattainable. The four boys, particularly Virgil and Ben, are not shy to porn, talking about it openly and often. Throughout the film, porn (and subsequently prostitution) is their only exposure to sex. And at parties, hooking up is only an option when extreme alcohol and drugs are involved. For Virgil, sex is such an extreme deprivation that he always seems obsessive and sex-crazed. His first scene on screen, and thus the introduction to his character, was him staring down a woman’s shirt at her breasts. While conducting one of their scams at an electronic store, Virgil’s ineptitude with talking to woman is painfully obvious as he tries to flirt with the girl at the cashier. He drills her awkwardly with questions and there is a look of obvious discomfort on her face. We as the audience feel uncomfortable as well and it is immediately established that when it comes to sex and women, Virgil is always seen as the “creep.” Even the prostitute does not want to sleep with him because his obsession with sex made him violent. In the scene where he and Ben are sitting in the Las Vegas hotel room, Virgil just casually watches porn really loudly and remarks that “the sound is the best part,” feeding further into his sexual fantasies. Even as he attempts suicide, porn is the last thing on his mind. He no longer has any sense of filter when it comes to talking about porn or sex and despite his characterization intending to be the humor relief, it is painful and uncomfortable to witness just how sexually unfulfilled he is. Daric often uses his position as the head of several clubs and therefore the “trusted” leader, coach, and authority figure in order to hook up with his female teammates. He must resort to hegemonic relations and assigned positions of power in order to dominate in sex. And despite Daric’s attraction to Stephanie, Steve reveals that Stephanie thought of him as a “stalker,” further implying that he is not masculine enough to get the girl he wants and through conventional means. While Ben is having sex with the prostitute, she is very much in dominant control while Ben is at her mercy for pleasure, remaining subversive even while finally “achieving” sex.
Stephanie is also a symbol of the sex that is just always out of the boys’ reach. Ben pines after Stephanie the entire film and she looks at him as purely a friend. She is also able to dominate him in more ways than one, pricking his finger in biology class while he winces at the pain (and laughs at him that he needs a band-aid), and yelling at him for doing the homework for her, causing him to apologize. As such, she never viewed Ben as manly enough for sexual affection until he kills Steve, effectively replacing the only form of Asian male sexual dominance and machoness.
The film takes the concept of sex and uses it as a prop to acknowledge and thus reinforce the stereotype of Asian males as sexually weak. The way it addresses the ideology is a bit problematic as the plot line and characterizations do nothing to try to change the narrative and empower the Asian male image, instead only allowing one subordinate male to symbolically replace another through actual death.