Filmic Face-lift

fracas n a noisy, disorderly fight or quarrel; a brawl

The white guy had no idea he was about to do filmmaker Justin Lin a huge favor. After watching Lin's tale of Asian American high-school overachievers gone bad, the journalist didn't stand up to applaud the young director. He got up because he was furious. "How could you ... make such a bleak, negative, amoral film?" the critic asked Lin. "Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?"

Mayhem broke out until a portly man clambered onto his chair. Round glasses, round figure, it was none other than the famous-thumbed Roger Ebert, who tore into the questioner. "You would never make a comment like that to a white filmmaker!" he thundered, pumping his fist in the air. The audience roared with approval.

It was only the third showing of the film at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and the buzz was already thick on Better Luck Tomorrow, or BLT, as the movie is also known. It got thicker when The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell defended it from a similar question at a later screening. MTV Films snapped up the movie, making it the first ever Asian American film acquired at a festival, and now it's opening in April to limited release -- and maybe more screens, if it does well.

It's all coming down to the wire for Lin and his Asian American cast, who are waiting to see if their hardscrabble days of racking up credit-card debt and taking Chinese delivery-men roles are over. It's also a cinematic moment of truth for Asian American audiences, who are waiting to see if BLT, aka The Great Yellow Hope, will usher in an Asian American film revolution, bringing roles that transcend kung-fu mastery, hoochie-mama appeal and the golden handcuffs of "positive portrayals."

Asian American actors were largely confined to war-movie extra and nonspeaking roles that emphasized notions of Asian "foreignness" and near invisibility -- until 1993's hit The Joy Luck Club. That tale of four Chinese American daughters and their Chinese mothers did crack the door open for Asian American actors. But its magic formula -- this endless struggle and reconciliation with the motherland and our old-school parents -- became a cinematic template for the Asian American experience.

Aside from efforts in the indie film community (from which BLT stems), the movie world hasn't depicted the lives of Asian Americans -- people who speak unaccented English, people whose lives are informed by race, ethnicity and family but aren't reduced to those issues. In other words, no mainstream film has shown us the way we see ourselves: people, not a people, with individual quirks and dilemmas not accorded to characters forced to "represent" (positively or not) "their community."

No film, that is, until BLT.

simulacrum n 1. an image or representation 2. an unreal or vague semblance

Far too many Asian American roles are "blank," BLT actor John Cho told a Washington audience in March. "You whined about the buck teeth -- now you can play the doctor," he mocked, lampooning Hollywood's PC turnabout. "Just think of the freedom we can have if we're willing to risk our image."

What is that image exactly? For high-school junior Ben (Parry Shen), BLT's protagonist, it's the model-minority myth, that insidious image of Asian Americans as a manageable bunch, an overachieving and tractable people. The apolitical Ben would never trace his malaise to this notion. But it seems to chafe subconsciously, leading him to furtively sabotage the image of the good boy who volunteers at the hospital, who each day learns one new word (the definitions appear onscreen and shape the film's structure) and shoots more than 200 free throws. He rebels, shoplifting from a computer store and toilet-papering a neighbor's house. "Straight A's were our passports to freedom," Ben says in a voice-over. "It just felt good to do something I couldn't put on my college applications."

Ben is joined in these extracurricular endeavors by Virgil (Jason Tobin), thin as a whippet and hopped up on hormones and horniness. He leers at the cleavage of a zaftig matron before exclaiming, "Middle-aged hos is the finest!" Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang) also hangs around, brooding and smoking.

We first meet Virgil and Ben in their Orange County suburb, identical pre-fab houses stretching down the street. The boys are sitting outside. A cell phone rings. They delve into pockets. It's not Virgil's. It's not Ben's. They track the ringing, crawling on the lawn with their ears cocked to the ground. Some frantic digging later, they find a dead hand and the ringing phone.

It's familiar territory, this: the rot at the heart of American suburbia, as seen in Blue Velvet or American Beauty or any other number of films. Everything has its darkness, including Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), the pretty cheerleader Ben pines for who dates uncaring bad boy Steve (Cho). She's also rumored to have starred in a porn flick, according to the omnivorously randy Virgil. And so we watch the boys watch the porn, trying to puzzle out the actress' face while her nasty co-star grunts, "Work those pom-poms."

The suburban backdrop of these submerged nightmares is a perversion of the American Dream, BLT seems to say, a facile replacement for finding one's individual consciousness. But Lin upsets both the clichés of the suburban drama and the ethnic movie: There are no families present, no parents at all, and none of the maddeningly caricatured, culture-clashing dreck of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for example. There are only the kids, foundering, lost and dealing with adolescence, race and gender -- without politically charged treatises (who, after all, really sits around and talks identity politics all day?) or the Hallmark sentiments of Hollywood movies.

dissolution n 1. decomposition into fragments or parts; disintegration 2. indulgence in sensual pleasures; debauchery 3. termination or extinction by disintegration or dispersion 4. extinction of life; death

As the dead body would suggest, it's all downhill from the start, with senior valedictorian Daric (Roger Fan) serving as the madman catalyst. Alpha-male slick, Daric is the kind of guy whose smile is half charm, half primate grimace. "We don't have to play by the rules," he purrs, with übermenschian assurance. "We can make our own." And so he turns Ben and his friends on to selling cheat sheets and then drugs, and the boys soon descend into a maelstrom of criminal behavior and gangster posturing. Just as they were excellent students, they make excellent criminals.

Better Luck Tomorrow is Goodfellas by way of Fight Club and Kids -- a search for masculine meaning that takes a dizzying drop into amorality. The tension breaks open at a party, where white bullies harass Ben and his friends. Daric whips out a gun, Virgil yapping and bouncing just past his shoulder. "Shoot him in the face!" he howls, grinning like a demented jack-o'-lantern, before the boys settle for kicking the crap out of their assailant instead.

They retire to their car afterward, and this scene is Lin's masterstroke. The boys are glum, except for the still-leering Virgil. Another car pulls up next to them, with real gangsters -- poor Asian American kids who live the dead-end identity Ben's posse tries on with such a sense of glee and empowerment -- riding high and threatening to shoot them. Virgil's still yammering, oblivious to the threat in the next car, but then his chin starts to tremble as he thinks out loud. "My dad's gonna fucking kill me," he whimpers, reflecting on the fight at the party as Ben and the others trade frightened glances with the gangsters. "I'm going to juvie."

Tobin makes this scene. With his hairpin turn from adrenaline rush to remorse, he exposes the heartbreaking vulnerability behind the crazy-friend facade. The other actors do well, too, though they sometimes struggle with narrative meandering, overripe dialogue or thin spots in their characters. These occasional flaws can bog down a tale that opens with a shocker of a dead body. Perhaps these criticisms have to do with (full disclosure here) my being faintly acquainted with Roger Fan from college; I know he's no teenager. But Lin's brilliant and stylish camera work sometimes distances the audience, like when he editorializes a scene of climactic violence with an endless, spiraling shot, one that comments on the scene as a circular trap in a cycle of violence. The scene's composition is harrowing enough -- three boys locked together in a perverse Pietà, with murder replacing maternal grief -- and doesn't need any more explication.

auspicious adj 1. attended by favorable circumstances; propitious 2. marked by success; prosperous

For the most part, however, BLT packs a wallop. It strikes just the right note between its title's fatalism and insouciance, and can be, by turns, wildly funny, thoughtful and cringe-inducing. It's a revelation to see Asian American characters who remind me of real people I knew -- high-school students whose stellar records hid violent pasts and deep scars. "If Justin Lin had a responsibility to 'his community,'" Ebert wrote from Sundance, "it was to make the best film he possibly could," one that showcased his characters as fleshed-out, three-dimensional people -- and in this Lin largely succeeded. BLT might not be perfect, but any director whose work shatters both stereotype and counterstereotype -- and who can make a scene like that unforgettable, searing car ride -- is well on his way to fulfilling that responsibility.

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