Originally published in the Daily Texan on April 29, 2003.
Justin Lin was waiting by the phone Sunday night. It was the rare break from a publicity tour that has taken him from Los Angeles to New York to Austin within a matter of days. Unfortunately, the phone call was business as well.
Despite rave reviews and a staggering opening weekend gross of $400,000 on just 14 screens, the 31-year-old writer/director was waiting to hear from Paramount Classics brass whether the studio would expand the release of his second film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a harrowing look into the lives of Asian-American high school students in Southern California, into theaters nationwide.
In some ways, “Better Luck Tomorrow” has been a victim of its own success. Had Lin’s film opened to great reviews and box office closer to its $250,000 budget, the film would’ve opened up in arthouses across the country, Lin could’ve done a few phone interviews and start work on a follow-up. But the film that has been considered an abomination, a masterpiece and a controversy waiting to happen ever since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it’s on the cusp of being called something else – mainstream, something the filmmaker had never considered before.
“I had nothing to offer except a script and me in the beginning, and for people to say, ‘Look, we believe in it, and we’ll come on,’ I’ll do anything,” said Lin. “It is something that’s rare. Everybody has been trying to share the experience. It wasn’t planned out, it started out with just a few people, and it snowballed. That inspires me.”
The film itself inspired heated debates during Sundance, where film critic Roger Ebert chastised audience members who questioned the film’s depiction of morally questionable Asian-Americans by asking whether the same questions would be raised if the teen characters had been Caucasian. Perhaps because of the controversy or in spite of it, Lin began getting those phone calls that eluded him when he was trying to put the film together.
“It really had to come down to where I felt I was in my life,” said Lin. “Having gone through film school and knowing I was going to have to take out 10 credit cards, [something] I know I can probably only do that once in my life, it had to be something that would have to be close to me, that had to deal with issues that were important to me, and it became ‘Better Luck Tomorrow.’”
Despite investors who thought Macaulay Culkin might’ve been a good choice for Ben, the overachieving anti-hero who gets sucked into the corruptive forces at his high school, Lin stuck to his guns in assembling the all Asian-American cast he wanted. (One of the film’s investors who didn’t ask to change a thing was M.C. Hammer, who contributed $5,000 based on Lin’s pitch alone.) What was once seen as a liability has since helped the film find an audience as the stir it created amongst Asian-American audiences has now created a wave, due in no small part to the fact that it’s a voice that’s rarely heard from in American movies.
“I feel as an audience member like that’s one perspective I haven’t seen, and I think it’s important to show that so we can all have a dialogue,” said Lin. “Frankly, I just want to see three-dimensional human beings, but the secondary thing that’s coming up a lot is what ‘positive portrayal’ means, which is something even within our community we should have a dialogue about because a lot of times we box ourselves in with these meanings and you can easily fall into the model-minority myth again.”
One might assume that Lin might have drawn on some personal frustrations for the story of an Academic Decathlete with a perfectionist streak who begins to rebel against the expectations others have of him by applying himself not to the Ivy League future that would seem to be his destiny but a life of petty crime. However, Lin insists the only thing he has in common with Ben is his disdain for the SATs.
“As a writer, you have certain levels of connection with all of the characters,” said Lin, who uses the familiar framework of studying for standardized tests for the film’s structure. With Ben, there are certain qualities, probably the most personal one is studying the SAT words because a lot of times people were just worried about the scores, but they don’t care if they use the words [in the verbal section] or not. That’s one thing that I definitely wanted to have in the film because you know the goal, but you’re missing the meaning of why you go on that journey to achieve that goal.”
Before he started making movies, Lin actually asked himself why. An immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in Anaheim, California, Lin enjoyed watching movies, but he much preferred sports. Still, he came to realize how much the two had in common, seeing how filmmaking was involved the same amount of teamwork, if not more, than a game of hoops. He would go to UCLA, where they specialize in both, and grew to admire such films as Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” the latter of which he says “triggered in my mind, ‘Wow, film could be something else. After that, I thought I’m going to give film school a try.”
In having a film play in multiplexes at all, Lin has found success that only a handful of other Asian-American filmmakers have, with Wayne Wang (“Maid in Manhattan”) and Joan Chen (“Autumn in New York”) the only other notable directors in recent years. But it’s a distinction he’s tired of being reminded of. During his promotional tour through Austin, he did an on-air interview with an alternative rock station where the deejay interrupted their interview to pull out a gong and play “oriental” music. However, Lin believes the frustration that he and others feel about the current climate will only fuel change.
“We’re all sick of seeing one-dimensional portrayals and we want to be empowered and see these people onscreen,” said Lin. “So it’s been great because Asian-Americans have really shown up on the first weekend [for “Better Luck Tomorrow”] and if they continue to, we can really carve out a piece of the pie. As consumers, we will be able to demand more products like this, so hopefully it keeps going.”