American Cinema

"Better Luck Tomorrow"

Directed by: Justin Lin

Cast: John Cho, Roger Fan, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Parry Shen

Running Time: 1:41

Rated R



"Raising Victor Vargas"

Directed and Written by: Peter Solett

Cast: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Altagracia Guzman

Running Time: 87 min.

Rated R



comparative review by Jade Sharma



One of the biggest problems in American Cinema is the lack of minority representation, especially of Asians and Latinos. These groups have been systematically shunted to the sidelines of contemporary American cinema. The African American community has enjoyed more exposure than other minority groups. Black males on television are represented three times more than they are in the general population. Of course, the roles they are given can be -- and often are -- criticized as stereotypical. Asians are hardly seen in movies at all, not even in stereotypical roles. And, for the most part, when you see a Latino in a film, you only need to wait a couple of seconds before a crime goes down.



This is a problem in film that I think we all know about. It is fairly obvious, and talked about a lot, but little has been done to fix it. As an Indian Asian and aspiring filmmaker, it's a subject I've thought about a lot. When I started writing screenplays, all of my characters were either black or white. I couldn't figure out why I was doing this. I'm not white, I'm not black. Why do I feel more comfortable writing characters of a different race then my own? Of course, as a writer, I believe that one of the things we strive to accomplish is to transcend one's own identity in order to create real characters in a world made for them. But the larger question remains: Why aren't more roles written for Asians and other minorities in films? The few Asians who are in film tend to be stereotyped. By introducing an Asian character who doesn't fit the mold, one runs the risk of having one's film labeled "Asian" or, more generically, "Ethnic". This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you attempt to market your product as mainstream, it may be a fairly difficult obstacle to overcome. This absence of Asians seen in films may lead you to feel that your Asian character bears a disproportionate burden, in the sense that he or she represents a whole race; it might be perceived that you're saying something good (or bad) about Asians in general. It's tough for your character to exist as an individual. This is a quandary of sorts, a Catch-22; by breaking one stereotype, you run the risk of creating another. Non-Asians may feel like they don't have a right to -- or cannot accurately -- portray Asians.



I found that one of the reasons I was writing white characters is that having a white character is like having a blank page. Whatever characteristics, whatever traits, whatever eccentricities you give to the character, belong to the character. To be white in American film is to be Everyman; you can be a poor white man, a rich white man, a robber, a killer, a dad, a businessman, a doctor, and a homeless person. Putting a white person in any role gives you freedom. Your audience will judge the character only by what they say, what they're wearing, how they act. If the character is black, or Asian, or Puerto Rican, you must deal with the preconceptions and attitudes that your audience brings to the theater. Non-white characters are judged before being introduced. Based solely on skin color, people will view your character with a different and limited set of perceptions than they would a white person. The subject of race isn't an issue unless white characters play opposite an Asian or black. If it's just a film with all white characters, audiences just see the characters; they don't consider it a commentary on white America, just America. There is no "white" section in video stores but there is a section labeled "black."



Having said that, I recently saw two films, both dealing with minorities. One was about Asian Americans and the other one was about Puerto Rican Americans. Better Luck Tomorrow and Raising Victor Vargas. In my opinion, one of these films was successful, one was not.



Better Luck Tomorrow could have been a good film. It has an interesting premise: a group of upstanding high school kids live secret lives of crime. The main character is Ben (Parry Shen), an average American teenager striving to get into a good college. He gets good grades and is involved in a number of after school activitiessuch as the food drive, academic decathlon, and the basketball team. Ben falls into a crowd similar to himself, all ambitious Asian students who go to great lengths to overachieve. To reduce the boredom of suburbia, the group begins to get involved with little scams. First they rip off electronics stores, then get involved with cheat sheets, then -- without any development in the plot -- they suddenly become coke dealers. Rather abruptly thereafter, the group ends up with a murder on their hands. None of the characters undergoes any apparent transformation. The filmmakers resort to the standard matinee ending: boy drives off into sunset with girl he wanted all along.



There are obvious holes in the story, such as how they get from selling cheat sheets to dealing coke. Since they all seem to come from affluent backgrounds, there's the lingering question of "why are they doing this?" One conspicuous choice made by the filmmakers was to avoid depictions of any parents or other adults in the film. I think this proved a big mistake, as the contrast may have given more motivation to the characters' actions. Without parents, there is no commentary on the vastly different world in which their parents were raised versus the one into which these kids are born. This might have helped to explain the characters' overzealous desire to achieve. There were other problems with character development: the main character, Ben, struck me as phony and bland; he's like a collage of every lead male character in film for the past twenty years -- including everyone from Tom Cruise in Risky Business to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. The love interest, a cheerleader with the standard jerk asshole boyfriend, doesn't have any depth at all. In the beginning of the film, she looks like a regular Miss Goody Twoshoes. When it later turns out she may have played in some porn of some kind, there is nothing about her character that believably explains either her past or her switch. Either way, these two central characters are uninteresting, and the dialog between them is barely a step up from any teen television drama.



To attain a perfect score on his S.A.T., Ben learns the word "inextricable" -- an adjective meaning, among other things, "hopelessly intricate". This perfectly critiques Better Luck Tomorrow. The makers apparently want to cover every subject: from white parents adopting Asians, to neglected kids, to drugs, to affirmative action, to teen suicide, to... well, just about every ABC After School Special ever made. Better Luck Tomorrow should have focused on one storyline and a natural pace, instead of slowing the story down with the love interest for a half hour, then fast forwarding through all of their criminal activity, before coming to a screeching halt with a torturous murder and a last-ditch suicide to top it off. Maybe because the film had three different writers who tried to take it to three different places, and ended up taking it half way to nowhere with nothing to learn, it failed as a cohesive, tight film.




There are a few successful things about Better Luck Tomorrow. First of all, it's a low budget film that looks and feels like a big budget film, which means the cinematographer and the director knew what they were doing technically, at least.



What impressed me as I watched was that the film sometimes managed to deny the characters' Asian backgrounds. Ben could have been, well, white. Beyond the superficial, there is no evidence in his character at all that he's not. I don't think this would necessarily be a fault, but it didn't work for me. Watching Better Luck Tomorrow, I couldn't help imagining a group of writers sitting around a table saying, "Hey, let's make an Asian Pulp Fiction," "or an Asian Go," or "let's make an Asian this or that..." That said, it's as if race in Lin's film only matters to the group, not to its individuals. When the group goes to a party and a bunch of jocks make some racial remark, it incites one of the characters to pull out a gun and start a fight. But race is never treated as an integral part of who they are. This led to feel that the character development was superficial and ultimately, unbelievable.



Raising Victor Vargas, on the other hand, is a tight, cohesive film with memorable characters, and one of the most authentic movies I've ever seen, all centered around Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), a fifteen year-old wannabe player. The film starts out with him losing his virginity to a fat girl. He is caught in the act, and soon the whole neighborhood is making fun of him. This is all treated in a lighthearted manner, and Victor takes it in stride. Later, at the Pitt Street pool with his friend, Victor meets the challenge to make their moves on two pretty girls. Victor falls for Judy (Judy Marte) the first time he sees her sitting beside the pool. She first gives him the cold shoulder and then agrees to let him be her boyfriend, but only because she doesn't want to be bothered by other guys.



That's only one side of Raising Victor Vargas. The other side is Victor's family life. He lives with his saintly younger brother, his couch potato sister, and his traditionally moralistic grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). The interactions between this family are the most natural I have ever seen. The grandmother sees Victor as a hoodlum trying to destroy the family. Victor is only behaving like a normal teenager, getting a girlfriend, trying to be cool. But the grandmother perceives him as a sex maniac encouraging his younger siblings to become interested in sex too early. When she finds Victor's younger brother, Neno, jerking off in the bathroom, she flies through the roof and drags Victor to the police station to tell the officers that she no longer wants him in her house. At film's end, after Victor storms off and stays out all night, we find the family in the dining room. The grandmother is silently sitting at the window, and Nino and his younger sister are on the couch. Victor walks in and sits between his siblings. The phone rings. Victor walks up to his grandmother and requests the key to the phone. She has had a lock put on the phone after -- early in the film -- Victor threw it out the window. The grandmother grudgingly retrieves the key and hands it to him. This resonated for me as a completely believable and poignant rendering of the grandmother's transformation. There is no blatant apology, or big speech, like most important breakthroughs in movie families; it revolves around a simple action that is heavier then any word. And that is what works about Raising Victor Vargas. It isn't in your face; it's like a series of candid moments. All the characters are likeable and it's easy to relate to them. There is no big issue of race here. Although the story takes place in New York's readily identified Lower East Side, there are no guns or violence. As director Paul Sollett says, "if Victor was asked what kind of life he wanted, he would say, 'I want to meet a nice girl, and get a good job, like any other kid." Sollett doesn't mistreat his characters' racial identities; he accurately depicts them without focusing everything on what is really just a simple, ordinary part of everyone's everyday life.



An interesting side-note to these films is the fact that Better Luck Tomorrow was written and directed by Asians, while Raising Victor Vargas was written and directed by Peter Sollet, who is white. Thus, it looks to me like the lesson to be learned is that you can transcend your own cultural identity to portray another culture and place, but you must remain true to your characters.



In conclusion, I feel Better Luck Tomorrow doesn't accurately portray the Asian experience. Instead, it tries to push Asia outside, only using it to incite senseless violence. In Raising Victor Vargas, although there is no discussion of race, and no depiction of racial conflicts, we know where they are located in the racial identity pool. Because of the role of the grandmother, you get where they're from and what they have been brought up with; at stark variance with the lack of adults in Better Luck Tomorrow.



To simply replace white characters with Asians or Latinos in mainstream American cinema isn't the answer. More voices must be heard, and they must tell stories reflecting the lives of those on different paths, the lives of characters whose most important job is to remain believable. I don't know why Ben didn't seem believable to me. If he was white, he would have been more credible. Maybe that's my problem. It may also indicate something about racial attitudes in America today. But right now, there aren't enough Asian and Latino faces in the movies to change such attitudes. Hopefully we'll have better luck tomorrow!


Jade Sherma, May 2003