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Teaching "Better Luck Tomorrow"

Synopsis: Everyone knows a person like Ben-the perfect Asian American high school teen, part of the "model minority." He's an extremely intelligent perfectionist, an overachiever whose tunnel vision will lead to nothing less than graduating at the top of the class and acceptance to the best Ivy League university. Ben lives in an upper middle class, conservative L.A. suburb in Southern California. As he struggles to achieve social success in high school, we discover his darker side. Along with two friends, Virgil, a brilliant yet socially inept misfit, and Virgil's cousin Han, a lost soul with more brawn than brains, Ben leads a double life of mischief and petty crimes that alleviate the pressures of perfection.

At the start of his high school freshman year, Ben befriends Daric, the senior valedictorian and another archetypical overachiever and perfectionist. But Daric is somewhat odd. While being the most intelligent student in the class, he also seems to be the most volatile and dangerous. Behind his trusting and benevolent fa├žade lies a lurking secret, a time-bomb ready to explode. With Daric at the helm, this group of misfit teens bands together into a suburban gang. As their adopted identity grows, Ben and the gang tumble into a downward spiral of excitement, excess, fun and lurking danger. Ben's life careens out of control, into an intoxicating mix of sex, drugs and crime, leading to a surprising end that will leave audiences engrossed.--www.betterlucktomorrow.com

"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a complex film that can be useful in contributing to discussions related to stereotypes, absence of Asian-American representation in mainstream American popular culture, pressure to succeed in America, as well as many other topics. It would also be an interesting companion piece to a variety of Asian-American texts including, The Joy Luck Club. Because of its R rating, this film is appropriate for secondary and post-secondary classrooms.

Challenge 1: Discussing Stereotypes
Dealing with stereotypes is tricky business. When confronting preconceived notions, it is important to help students realize that people do not behave a certain way simply because they have a certain skin color, believe in a certain spiritual text, or belong to a country club. It is important to break stereotypes and help students recognize that people are multidimensional. So, is it acceptable for an artist to portray a person, or persons, of a certain ethnicity in a negative light? Or even doing something that reinforces a stereotype? Do media portrayals always need to be positive when it comes to underrepresented Americans?

In the age of Borat, South Park, and The Chappelle Show, students are often exposed to post-politically correct commentary on the notion of stereotypes. While these representations can be useful in shedding light on the absurdity of stereotyping, they can also be easily misinterpreted. Students take the antics of Borat at face value instead of understanding the true intent of the artist behind the caricature. They laugh at the outlandish comments made by Cartman and his friends in South Park without fully understanding the satire. This may lead to the reinforcing of certain stereotypes, or even the emergence of new ones. Because the artist can't explain his intent to every member of their audience, some art may be misinterpreted and, ultimately, create the opposite reaction than was intended. Should an artist change their art just because it may be misperceived? Should some works be banned because they are too challenging or ambiguous for some people?

When "Better Luck Tomorrow" arrived in theaters, it was met with mixed reviews. On one side, audiences were excited to see an all Asian American cast in a film written by an Asian American. On the other side, audiences were uncomfortable with the negative actions and attitudes of the characters in the film. The characters played off of the stereotype of Asian Americans as the "Model Minority," presenting images of Asian American characters involved in crime, drug abuse, and violence. It is a challenging film on many different levels. But is it irresponsible?

One way to examine the issues brought up by "Better Luck Tomorrow" is to have students recast different films or even television shows using different ethnicities. Then explain how the recasting would change the perception of the film. Would the reaction to "Better Luck Tomorrow" have been different if the cast was made up of Euro-Americans, or African Americans? This discussion sheds light on the preconceived notions that our students bring to different ethnicities.

Challenge 2: Where are the Asian Americans?: Searching for Asia Americans in Modern American Pop Culture
When "Better Luck Tomorrow" was released, one of the aspects of the film that grabbed the attention of the public was the ethnicity of the cast -- almost all Asian American. The film was groundbreaking. But, why had this never happened before?

Often, students aren't aware of the power of popular culture. They take for granted the images that are fed to them via mainstream media. Sadly, many students in our classrooms are underrepresented in popular media. The message that this sends can be devastating. While the causes of this phenomenon are arguable, bringing attention to this omission is important in helping students develop a critical eye when dealing with the media.

As children, students are presented with television scenarios that include a multicultural cast. From Sesame Street to Little Einsteins, the casting of these shows always involve a variety of ethnicities. But as these children grow older, the casting of television shows and other media that appeals to their age group gets less and less diverse. It is rare to see a prime time television show with a wide range of diversity. Much less a motion picture. And while some ethnic groups are starting to become more prevalent, there are still some that are almost non-existent. Among those are Asian Americans.

A good discussion to have with students might focus on the fact that some ethnic types are dominant in mainstream media while others are hard to find. What is the reason for this? While the answer to that question will vary, the asking is the important part. Students need to start to notice who the "good guys" are, and who are the "bad guys" in popular culture. Or they need to start wondering why one ethnicity is the majority in the media. What message does this send and why is it being sent?

A good classroom activity for exploring this topic would be to have students look for different ethnic types on a given night of broadcast television. Keeping journal entries on what they notice not just on the television shows, but also in commercials. How are different ethnic groups portrayed? Who is included and who is missing? This can lead to rich discussion inside of the classroom and, hopefully cause student to take the time to search for material that truly reflects the American experience.

"Better Luck Tomorrow" homepage

"Better Luck Tomorrow" Wiki

Interview with director Justin Lin