There's that stereotype about Asian Americans being the most "successful" immigrants in the United States because of their word-hard ethic and their devotion to academic achievements. There might be some truth to that stereotype, but that notion doesn't fit every Asian American. There's also the matter of whether or not Asian American children are happy as they grow up following narrowly-defined paths towards "fruitful" careers.
"Better Luck Tomorrow", directed, co-written, and edited by newcomer Justin Lin, explodes a lot of myths about young Asians in America. The film begins with Ben (Parry Shen) talking about how Asian American students do certain things in order to get into good colleges so that they can all go to med school one day. Then, we see Ben hanging out with Virgil, Han, and Daric doing small things like creating cheat sheets and stealing their school's computer equipment. Finally, the gang graduates to dealing drugs and hosting orgies, and no one says a thing against Ben and his friends when Daric threatens a white boy with a gun. While the four commit their nefarious deeds, they manage to win the Academic Decathlon's national title and participate in legitimate extracurricular activities. Their surface respectability shields them from serious criticism.
There are a couple of good things in "Better Luck Tomorrow". The first half of the film is its most-enjoyable and well-made. I liked the humor that rose to the surface because the movie begins as a sort of social comedy/commentary. The actors are all very good, especially Roger Fan as the charismatic Daric and Sung Kang as the tough, sullen Han. The screenplay also gets off on the right foot as, even while making slyly knowing observations about Asian American attitudes, it never makes its characters' ethnic identities the focus of attention. It's enough that we know and accept the characters as being Asian; they just happen to live in America.
However, the film's several major flaws prevent it from amounting to much. For starters, the narrative isn't realistic or believable. I can accept the absence of parents or the pursuit of getting into an Ivy League university or the plunge into social mayhem, but I can't accept all three happening to the same set of characters in one movie. The "conditions" set up by the script convenience the characters to the point of silliness. Yes, it's true that a lot of parents (not just Asian ones) will leave their kids to their own devices as long as they bring home respectable report cards, but parents who care about their children's grades are present at least some of the time. Also, it's basically impossible to maintain a sterling academic performance if you're always carousing the way that Ben and his friends do. Finally, given how idiotically the characters behave, there's no way that they could've gotten away with what they did in real life. I'm sure that the filmmakers had many things to say about a specific group of people in middle-class society, but trying to say all of them at the same time ultimately overwhelms the movie's ability to relate a story that doesn't strain credulity.
Video authoring for DVDs has gotten to the point that the vast majority of studio efforts--especially those that are shot in a naturalistic way--look just about the same...that is to say that they all look very good. "Better Luck Tomorrow" arrives on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer that has only a few small blips and scratches courtesy of its source print. Otherwise, you get the "usual" clean, sharp viewing experience.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English track is mostly front-heavy since the film is driven by dialogue. The center channel sounded a tad weak, so you may find yourself fiddling with the volume dial quite a bit. There are some music and sound effects that were placed in the front left and right speakers, but they're not quite enough to establish a wide soundstage.
Optional English subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
For a movie that received quite a bit of press (and notoriety), "Better Luck Tomorrow" isn't enjoying a special edition DVD bow. It's probably just as well since the movie was shot with a low budget, and whatever extras that could be created would be of the fluffy promotional variety that wouldn't fit the film's tone anyway. What you do get is an audio commentary by director/co-writer Justin Lin and co-writers Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez. The commentary provides a couple of tidbits about the production, and it also provides some details about the inspiration behind the creation of the movie. However, since the film is a rather superficial take on the teenage Asian sub-culture, there's not all that much that is enlightening, either, in the commentary.
A glossy insert provides chapter listings.
There's the argument that movies about minorities in the United States should portray their subjects as positively as possible in order to show how minorities have contributed to the improvement of American society. However, disregarding the fact that minorities also contribute to the detriment of society would be turning a blind eye to reality. There's something rather brave about the filmmakers' decision to make "Better Luck Tomorrow" about Asian delinquents. After all, given the wrong mindset, you could use the film to make the case that the presence of Asians in the U.S. is an awful thing. (Of course, that kind of attitude would be narrow-minded and stupid, too.)
On the other hand, it's something of a missed opportunity that "Better Luck Tomorrow" exists at all. There isn't much point to whatever is being shown, and the ennui being experienced by the characters does not have any thematic resonance. Rather than understanding or empathizing with why the characters choose to engage in such destructive behavior, you're left with the feeling that you just saw a bunch of teenagers doing some really dumb things. The film held my interest, but when it was over, I felt as if a void had passed through me.