BETTER LUCK TOMORROW deals with a pack of Asian-American high school students whose flirtation with the gangster lifestyle eventually leads to ruin. Its ethnic makeup gives it a certain novelty; it’s uncommon to see Asians taking center stage (literally) like they do here, and in this film there isn’t a Laundromat or drugstore in sight. But that aside, the movie isn’t quite as original as we’re supposed to believe—you’ve seen a lot of it before. I don’t claim to know what goes on inside the head of director Justin Lin, but I’d bet the house he’s watched Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, probably more than once.The similarities run all the way through this thing: the voiceover narration; the freeze frames; the suddenly-there’s-a-body teaser opening; the robbery gone wrong that proves disastrous—I could go on like this for a while. It got to the point where I began mentally labeling each character Ray Liotta or Joe Pesci or whatever their counterpart was. In fairness, it’s less a rip-off of Scorsese’s film than a reinterpretation—GOODFELLAS resized for the California suburban youth culture. These Asian-American wannabe gangsters aren’t hard-core thugs (one of them tends to dissolve into tears whenever matters become stressful). They’re just kids trying to grab the brass ring, and none of them is really aware what it costs to get it.
Lin does have a fine sense of pacing—the film never drags—and he scores valid points about the seductiveness of power and easy money; he makes you see how the simple desire of peer acceptance can lead people into terrible decisions. Sometimes, though, he resorts to weird-angle shots and fast-flurry editing in what seem like self-conscious attempts at “style.” In a gimmick that feels more awkward each time it’s employed, the film prefaces each major plot development by flashing a typeface dictionary entry of a word relevant to the action. He doesn’t need to pull stunts like that; he has a fairly solid cast in front of the camera: the characters are all well delineated, and it’s easy enough to forgive the occasional blown line.
As a director, Lin makes mistakes, certainly, but when all is said his film feels more authentic than not. He does not wallow in nihilism or cheap sensationalistic effects—perhaps this is why his characters, horrible though they may seem at times, never become repellent. I don’t think he’s quite found his voice yet, but I would be interested to see his future projects.This is a respectable effort, all around—it’s just that this material has been done better elsewhere.