Discover more from Movie Night
Better Luck Tomorrow
Surprisingly, it’s not about being Asian
Roger Ebert stands up and cuts down a man who asked the director, Justin Lin, and the cast of Better Luck Tomorrow what was, at best, a racist-adjacent question. Ebert, an eloquent, mild-mannered man, who I cannot see being anything more than mildly irritated on his worst day:
What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, how could you do this to your people? This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to represent their people.
He inserts a set of crazed/jubilant/revivalist-tent-style air quotes after “represent.” Here, watch Ebert in all his glory:
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Ebert was a badass--not the kind that needs to carry a wallet proclaiming he’s a bad motherfucker--but more like a Teddy Roosevelt, speak-quietly-and-carry-a-big-stick type. When he was fighting cancer and had lost a part of his jaw, he looked death in the face and shrugged: “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.”1 Also, let’s not forget he dated Oprah and wrote a cookbook on meals made entirely in an electric rice cooker. The balls on that man. Arguably, dating Oprah isn’t a big deal. At that time, she wasn’t quite the world-devouring Oprah that we know now, but for a white guy to write a cookbook advocating for anything other than plain rice to be cooked in an electric rice cooker! Asians need a word like chutzpah, and I propose that word should be “Ebert.” If you don't believe me, here’s a link to the book.
Of course, Ebert is right about Asian-American filmmakers and characters not having the burden or responsibility of representing “their” people. I want to take his words a half step further in applying them to Better Luck Tomorrow. Despite this movie having an all-Asian cast, it doesn’t represent Asians, as Ebert says, but I would say it isn’t even about being Asian. This movie isn’t about being Asian the same way Swingers isn’t about being white. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau do not represent whites. No one watches Swingers and thinks, “Good! A movie about white people! I wonder what I’ll learn about their exotic culture? Maybe they’ll explain Yahtzee.” (Side note: I still don’t get Yahtzee. Please, white people, explain the small yet enduring position this game has carved into your culture.) Swingers isn’t about white people, and BLT (yes, let’s call it that) isn’t about Asians.2
Yes, overachieving Asians breaking bad is the plot, but race is irrelevant. It’s difficult to get around race because movies with Asian casts are as rare now as when BLT came out in the Before Times. When you see a cornucopia of Asians (which is our preferred grouping name. Murder of crows, cornucopia of Asians.) in a movie, it’s almost impossible not to seek out actual or imagined statements about being Asian. Asians don’t make or appear in many American movies, so you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking when finally given a chance, they would take that opportunity to make a bold statement about Asian people. As Ebert yelled, Asian filmmakers are not required to make such a statement, and Justin Lin does not do that here.
If this movie isn’t about being Asian, what is it about? It’s about shooting 250 free throws, practicing SAT words while feeding your goldfish, joining school clubs only to sweeten college applications, moonlighting as a part-time sandwich artist, silently burning for your unobtainable lab partner who sits only inches away, and then repeating everything day after day after day.
It’s about being trapped in cycles, patterns of behavior that bring you no satisfaction and no end to your self-loathing. Why do you keep doing these things? BLT says because of the promise of a better tomorrow and inertia. When Ben (or Asian Guy #1, as he would be called in other movies from that time) starts selling crib sheets; pulling heists like the one where his crew steals, what must appear to many of you to be, comically large computers; and then dealing coke, it seems that he’s broken free of the cycle, but he hasn’t. He’s caught in a faster, more vicious cycle, and he escapes this cycle only by returning to the old one. He eventually truly breaks free with what I like to think of as Steve’s (Asian Guy #2 played by John Cho) Jesus-esque sacrifice.
This movie is about breaking the joyless cycles that trap many of us. It’s not about Asians. You could have picked the race of any of the characters at random, and the movie’s message would stay unchanged. Justin Lin chose to tell this story with Asians, just like he chose a bunch of meatheads to tell stories about fast cars.
Dae Woo Son lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife, two daughters, and a needy dog. This is Dae’s second recommendation for Movie Night.
Better Luck Tomorrow
Written by Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin, and Fabian Marquez and Directed by Justin Lin
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Last week I learned that Dae first learned how to type on a typewriter. As an editor for a free weekly movie recommendation on substack, I also learned that I’m not dedicated enough to go through and remove all of the double spaces his typewriting brain adds after each sentence. You may have seen the recent news of Justin Lin’s departure from the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t have any thoughts on this other than “huh, that sucks,” but it’s a great jumping-off point for examining Lin’s previous work! I’ll be putting up a calendar in my apartment this week that reads “Weeks without a Fast and Furious Mention in the Newsletter.” Maybe next week it will tick up to 1?
I was able to see Men last week, in a surprisingly crowded theater, and I loved it. That being said, it’s not an easy watch. Be sure to do your own research before heading to the theater. Whether you see the film or not, I’d recommend reading Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, a fantastic book in its own right, and an excellent companion to the madness.
I swear to you I took this line from Ebert’s blog and not his fucking Wikipedia entry, which also features this quote.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Swingers is indeed about being white and if Vince Vaughn’s character epitomizes white privilege. And the movie did teach me about the white arts of swing dancing and calling women no fewer than three days after obtaining their number. Why three days? Because if three days is enough time for Jesus to return from the dead, it’s enough time to keep a woman wondering where you are.