Justin Lin’s , Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), follows the journey of four Asian males as they transform from academically oriented students into criminals in order to portray the hegemonic ideologies of race, masculinity, and gender roles. Han, Daric, Ben, and Virgil, get bored with their academic lives and stumble upon an exciting life of crime by delving into the world of academic dishonesty, narcotics, gambling, and lust.
Race and masculinity are often stereotyped in this film. The main character Ben is portrayed as an inferior non-dominant Asian male. Ben makes the basketball team only to find out he is simply a minority token player whose only job is to “warm the bench”. Ben accepts his non-dominant role as if he has no control over his peers’ perceptions. However, Daric challenges Ben’s masculinity and eventually peer pressures him into participating in activities not typically associated with Asian-American males. For example, when at a party with his friends, Daric engages in a hostile argument, which ends with Daric brandishing a gun; temporarily, this act temporarily establishes his dominance over the white football players. The next day as the rumors about the party spread, the bandit of four won respect and dominancy from their peers who had previously looked down upon them. Since then, their ego has inflated, contributing to their increased sense of masculinity and dominance over their campus. This scene alludes to the social and ethnic clash between the Asian students and the white students, who are traditionally dominant in an academic environment.
With the rise of his and his friends’ reputation, Virgil also experienced an ego boost. He is no longer the “puppy that just shits on the carpet”. As he grew more independent throughout the film he felt greater need to emulate criminal behavior. He feels he needs to prove his power when he pulls out his gun before his intercourse with the prostitute, which leads to the prostitute being upset and results in Virgil still being a virgin.
This stereotypical representation of Asian-Americans, despite the hyperbole can be compared with what society sees today. The frustration and stress that Asian-American students experience in school is comparable to what Ben felt after realizing himself as a token minority. Just like Ben, many Asian-Americans feel the pressure to surpass expectations and be the best and brightest. Although he had a good heart, Ben allowed that stress to transform him. This stress is evident when they plan to rob Steve’s house; while Ben and Han disagree with the plan, they allow themselves to be persuaded by Daric, resulting in Steve’s death. Inclusion in exlusive social circles seems paramount to Asian-American students, and this movie shows how disorienting and manipulative the need to conform is.
Lastly, we see how guilt cripples the male ego with Virgil’s attempted suicide. Virgil, who has the most overwhelming need to show off his masculinity, was ironically the most self-conscious. His conscience simply could not handle the murder of their friend, which plausibly implies some amount of fragility. This is a great example of irony because the same young man who so boastfully waved his gun around at a prostitute seems to be the most fragile one in the group. This challenges what our concept of masculinity is. With this group of Asian-American students, these renegade, dangerous actions were really a way to compensate and challenge the views of their peers, and society at large. In order to reconcile those views, this gang decides to turn to the black market in order to prove something to people. When the gun is brandished during the fight, it was to prove something. It was to show that they were men too, and that they could not just be pushed around. Unfortunately this skewed view of manhood, and their incessant need to prove themselves led to terrible decision making on the part of everyone involved.
Better Luck Tomorrow is a great story of how stereotypes can drive people to do irrational things. Although the group used their perfectionism as a shield for their debauchery, the incessant need to prove themselves to their peers was a greater driving force. We see how this movie challenges the stereotypes and gender roles of Asian-Americans in an academic setting; It shows us the prevalence of group think in the Asian-American community. Holistically, Better Luck Tomorrow shares with us that there needs to be a balance of work and play and that we should not define ourselves by the perceptions of the group, but be happy with who we are and what we have.
- Better Luck Tomorrow. Dir. Justin Lee. Perf. Parry Shen and Jason Tobin. Paramount Pictures, 2002. Film.