LOS ANGELES, May 8 (UPI) -- Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow" is an entertaining and stylish micro-budget teen drama about affluent Asian-American honor students who turn to crime.
It has been widely praised by reviewers for being about characters who supposedly "could have walked out of any high school in the country," as the San Francisco Chronicle claimed. This assumption that "Better Luck Tomorrow" is not about race simply proves how oblivious white critics are to the quiet anger of many young Asian-American males.
Without the racial angle, this tale of a gun-toting, cocaine-dealing national champion Academic Decathlon team would be tired and a little silly. As an allegory of the sexual frustrations faced by Asian youths in Southern California's multiracial mating market, however, "BLT" is compelling.
At an upscale Orange County high school, three Ivy League-bound brainiacs, along with a lowbrow cousin, take up shoplifting and stealing exams. They don't need the money -- Daric, the ringleader, lives alone in his own house while his parents reside abroad -- but they desperately need to be more cool.
At a party, a white football player harasses Daric for wearing a letterman's jacket when he's only on the tennis team. Punches fly, and suddenly Daric pulls a gun on the astonished jock, pistol-whipping him to the ground. His junior partners -- immature Virgil and Ben, the Everynerd who narrates the film in the style of Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas" -- put the boot in, too.
Terrified of being arrested at school on Monday -- "How would that look on my college apps?" -- Ben instead finds that he's finally stud-ly in the eyes of his classmates. He's a gangsta!
Intoxicated by their new hip-hop image, they soon are efficiently supplying the student body with drugs. This gets them invited to party with all the cliques. In an Asian twist to this old plot, they still have to keep their grades up and practice for the SAT, though, or their parents will stop complacently ignoring them. (Implausibly for Asians, no parents are ever seen in the movie).
Worse, their new hip-hop glamour still can't get them a date, though they manage to lose their virginities to a bottle blonde hooker in Las Vegas, the unlikely host city for the national Academic Decathlon finals.
Almost all the characters in "BLT" are Asian, but the crucial subtext is the stress that interracial dating imposes on them.
The resentment felt by black women when a highly successful black man marries a blonde has been well documented in hit movies like "Waiting to Exhale." Less widely understood is the even more difficult situation Asian guys face in competing for girls against whites and blacks. This "dating disparity" is a perpetually volatile topic in online discussion groups for young Asian-Americans.
According to the 2000 Census, Asian women are 3.1 times more likely to be married to a white man than an Asian man is to be married to a white woman. At 6.2 to one, the black-Asian ratio is twice as skewed. The upshot: for every 1,000 Asian women with husbands, only 860 Asian men have wives. That's a lot of lonely bachelors.
Although Asians make up over 4 percent of the population, Asian-American males are virtually invisible in music, movies, and TV. In contrast, Asian women are omnipresent as newscasters, and not unknown as movie stars (such as Lucy Liu and Tia Carrere).
Chinese-born martial arts geniuses Jackie Chan and Jet Li can open movies, but there's little demand for Asian actors who don't kick people, as the strange evaporation of John Lone's career after his celebrated starring role in the 1987 Best Picture "The Last Emperor" testifies.
This accounts for the excitement "BLT" has generated among Asian-American students. It introduces six young talents in meatier roles than they might ever get in studio films. I especially liked Sung Kang as the dim bulb who correctly senses that his friends aren't as smart as they think they are.
Still, if Asian-Americans want to see their own actors and stories up on the screen, more of them are going to have to do what Lin, the 31-year-old director and co-writer, did: sign up for scores of credit cards, hustle the relatives, and make their own movies.
There's a steady stream of decent quality little movies made by African-Americans. There are only about one-third as many Asians as blacks overall. Yet, among those who have the entrepreneurial background and cash-rich connections to finance a small film, Asians are at least as numerous as blacks.
It's time for young Asian-Americans to stop complaining and start taking their media portrayals into their own hands.
Rated R for violence, drug use, language, and sexuality.