The notion of a commercially viable Asian American cinema was revisited last April (2003) when MTV Films released Better Luck Tomorrow, an independently produced feature by emerging director Justin Lin. After a controversial run at Sundance in 2002, Better Luck was plucked from the festival hubbub in ample time to draw on its well-earned momentum. It was the first film the studio had ever bought for distribution, and MTV had publicly pledged to give it a major theatrical release replete with promotional bombardment. Lin’s film is the first East Asian American feature widely marketed to a national audience since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. A fact that Lin’s film is seemingly aware of, as it merges the very Chinese predilection toward good fortune with a traditionally Western idiom and assumes a self-conscious, slyly ironic acknowledgment of Joy Luck‘s exploits.
Better Luck Tomorrow begins with a stereotype: upper-middle-class Asian American high school overachievers whose lives are defined by entry into an Ivy League school. The revelation here is that their social outlet is a double life of petty crime that quickly escalates beyond their control. It is an audacious and stylized portrayal of a phenomenon that is growing in suburban America’s Asian community, and it challenges the prevailing idea of the Asian American experience as the model minority. Lin’s film is knowingly brash and reactionary, aware of its double burden of defining the elusive concept of what constitutes the ethno-American experience and of engaging in Asian America’s longtime struggle for legitimacy in the cinematic mainstream.
What looms over Better Luck‘s release, however, is that it may mean little to the acceptability of Asian American cinema to mainstream audiences. In 1982, Wayne Wang released the now arthouse classic Chan is Missing, a genre-dodging detective film, which at least in title, toyed with the notion of examining Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan. The film was a breakthrough, giving American audiences in the arthouse scene their first accessible glimpse of Chinese American life depicted on the big screen by Chinese American filmmakers. Its success, accompanied by the emergence of mainstream writers such as Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and playwright David Henry Hwang, suggested that audiences were ready to accept American stories from an Asian perspective. However, Wang’s follow-up efforts, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Dim Sum, stories based entirely on the Chinese diaspora’s very American experience, were not as well received at the box office. Audiences instead fulfilled their interest in domestic Asian exotica with studio films such as The Karate Kid and Big Trouble in Little China. And though sometimes casting Asian American actors, most of these films starred non-Asian leads and generally bore their share of misguided stereotypes. Asian American filmmakers simply could not get the studio support needed to break into the mainstream.
Ten years later, Wang would have another chance, directing Joy Luck, the adaptation of Amy Tan’s bestseller. The film was a commercial success; the first of its kind, garnering high praise from mainstream critics but mixed reviews from the Asian American community. While Wang’s effort was generally applauded, critics of the film (and Tan’s novel) would come to cite its flaws, most notably its liberties regarding Chinese social customs. Box-office returns would prove that the film’s latitude toward cultural exactness would hardly matter. Joy Luck remains the highest-grossing Asian American film to date, but as with Chan, it did not inspire a wave of films in this realm.
Even Wang strayed from Chinese American content after its release, moving on to direct the independent crossover hits Smoke and Blue in the Face, and later, more dubious studio releases such as 1999’s Anywhere But Here and the more recent Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan. Films with markedly less melodramatic portrayals of China and Chinese Americans such as M. Butterfly and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet would find release in the ’90s but with far less Hollywood fanfare and studio backing. The promise of an Asian American cinema in the mainstream seemed to be going unrealized, just as any critical discussion of Asian America’s cinematic acceptance seemed to always begin with Chan and end with Joy Luck.
Now more than 20 years after Chan‘s release, Better Luck Tomorrow will pick up where Joy Luck left off, but sans the optimism for a mass Asian American cinematic movement. It offers only what the filmmakers believe is an unabashed look at the Asian American identity as a portrayal of the present, unfettered in its fiction by the history of Asians in America. The film, like its characters, lives in the moment, unaware of or ambivalent about the consequences of its actions. Director Lin seems to know that Better Luck will be left to the fickle scrutiny of the mainstream and he struggles to adjust to mainstream sensibilities. What he seems to want is what the film’s characters’ ultimately want: the unconditional acceptance of their American dream as they dream it. But here the dream overshadows the experience.
The film’s emergence from a decade of commercially unsuccessful efforts may be just another benchmark to the halting progress of Asian American cinema. Lin’s film will not be the measure of its own success. It will not matter whether or not the film is good or if audiences paid to see it. Its worth will depend, however unfairly, on the success of Asian American films to follow. With that said, the film is good enough and worth viewing even if solely because it is one of a short list of mainstream Asian American films to see.