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They're the bad seeds?

A tale of murderous Asian American teens didn't set out to explode stereotypes, but it may hit the bull's-eye.

April 06, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Nothing shatters an upright reputation like a ghastly little crime spree.

"Better Luck Tomorrow," opening in select major cities Friday, doesn't break down the "model minority" stereotype of Asian Americans as straight-A offspring of pious immigrants; it blows it to smithereens with a morally ambiguous tale of sex, drugs and violent death.

In the movie, overachieving Asian American high schoolers escape their dull suburban existence by dealing drugs and stealing computer hardware until their fast lives culminate in a grisly murder.

"It just felt good to do things I couldn't put in my college application," says Ben, the protagonist and narrator. "What else could we do? It was 'suburbia.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Debut' filmmakers -- In an April 6 Sunday Calendar article on Asian American films, "The Debut" was credited to the Basco brothers. Dion, Derek, Darion and Dante Basco co-starred in the film, but the writer-director was Gene Cajayon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 20, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Debut' filmmakers -- In an April 6 article on Asian American films, "The Debut" was credited to the Basco brothers. Dion, Derek, Darion and Dante Basco co-starred in the film, but the writer-director was Gene Cajayon.

The indie film got a blast of fame last year at the Sundance Film Festival, where its debased theme caused a raucous discussion in the audience about the political correctness of portraying Asian Americans in such a negative light. MTV Films saw gold in the controversy and bought "Better Luck," banking that the movie will appeal to a young, hip audience.

Paramount Pictures is distributing the movie as MTV Films' partner. It opens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, with wider distribution possible in the following weeks, depending on its performance. All of which may give "Better Luck" the best shot at mainstream success for a film with all Asian American leads since "The Joy Luck Club" a decade ago.

In many ways, "Better Luck" is the antithesis of "Joy Luck," the immigrant saga based on Amy Tan's novel that preceded a surge in small movies about Asian immigrants and their struggles to fit in America. These films, most of them made on a shoestring and fairly obscure, include V.V. Dachin Hsu's "My American Vacation," another tale about the chasm between Asian mothers and their American-born daughters; the Filipino American coming-of-age story "The Debut" by the Basco brothers, Dion and Derek; and the comical "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce" by Chi Muoi Lo, about a black couple and their adopted Vietnamese children.

In all these movies, ethnicity defines the characters and is central to the plot. But the teenagers in "Better Luck" do not dwell on the fact that they are Asian.

"As an Asian American filmmaker, I wanted to make a movie that was real and nonapologetic," said Justin Lin, 31, a Taiwanese native who grew up in Buena Park, in north Orange County. "I don't live my life always explaining why I need to exist, so I don't want my characters to have to."

Studio muscle

Lin's first cut at this notion came in his 1997 movie "Shopping for Fangs" -- co-directed with fellow UCLA Film School graduate Quentin Lee. It took a witty look at the everyday life of Asian American Gen-Xers.

The rough-around-the-edges film was praised by some critics as a valiant effort by a pair of talented novice filmmakers; it played in a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and around the country but had scant commercial success.

"Better Luck" is a more refined film with a chance to reach a national audience by virtue of its Sundance buzz and some studio marketing muscle.

"BLT," as the movie is known among its partisans, follows the lives of a group of teenagers whose biggest aspiration in life is to go to college so they can escape a mind-numbing existence of cookie-cutter homes and suburban complacency.

Ben, played by Parry Shen, and class clown Virgil, played by Jason Tobin, are honor-roll students. Together with Virgil's bad-boy cousin Han, played by Sung Kang, the trio earns pocket money by conning computer stores with bogus returns.

They quickly graduate to other scams with the help of Daric, the school valedictorian and president of virtually every club, portrayed by Roger Fan. "We don't have to play by the rules," Daric tells Ben.

In between filling out applications to Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, the boys kill time selling cheat sheets and drugs, making jaunts to Las Vegas and throwing wild parties. The film is sprinkled with glancing comical ethnic references. "What are you guys, a math club?" a stripper asks the group after she performs for them.

When Ben makes the junior varsity basketball team, only to warm the bench, Daric writes an article in the school paper about tokenism. Soon, a group of nerdy Asian students is attending every game in ethnic solidarity, carrying signs reading, "Free Ben."

The gang meets Steve, a private-school snob who wants to give his parents a reality check by robbing the family mansion. Steve enlists Ben and his friends. But the scheme takes a shocking and unexpected turn.

At Sundance and in other screenings, audiences gasped at the movie's disturbing denouement.

The plot is loosely inspired by the real-life case of Stuart Tay, a Tustin teenager bludgeoned to death in 1993 by fellow Asian American teens. Both victim and his killers were from well-to-do suburban families with Ivy League futures.

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