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Film / Better Luck Tomorrow

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Better Luck Tomorrow is a 2002 crime drama film directed by Justin Lin.

Set in suburban Orange County, California, the film follows a group of high-achieving Asian American high schoolers who turn to a life of crime out of boredom and dissatisfaction with their lives. This lifestyle sprials out of control, leading to eventual murder. The film was loosely based on the murder of Stuart Tay.

Ben (Parry Shen) is a straight-A student who wants nothing more than to make the school basketball team, get with his cheerleader crush Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), and get into an Ivy League school. After Big Man on Campus Daric (Roger Fan) messes things up for him on the basketball team, however, Ben ends up agreeing to take part in a test-cribbing scam. Ben's goofy childhood best friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Virgil's stoic cousin Han (Sung Kang) also get involved, and their gang soon expands to all sorts of criminal activities. Meanwhile, Ben competes with Stephanie's boyfriend Steve (John Cho), a private school kid with a strange outlook on life, for her affections. But as their crimes become bigger and their lifestyle more hedonistic, things take a violent turn...

The film's also notable for featuring the first appearance of Han Lue (played by Sung Kang), whom Justin Lin would later introduce to The Fast and the Furious franchise in Tokyo Drift.

Contains examples of:

  • Academic Athlete: Ben is a straight-A student who also loves basketball. He makes the team, but is mostly a benchwarmer.
  • Adults Are Useless: We don't see any of the protagonists' parents, who are completely oblivious to what their sons are actually doing.
  • Asian and Nerdy: Deconstructed. The protagonists are all academically excellent, upper middle class Asian-Americans, but they use their smarts and busy school schedule as a front for a life of crime and partying. They adopt this lifestyle in part as a rebellion against the high-pressure, rigid social role expected of them. This starts with paid exam cribbing in more alignment with the stereotype, but eventually leads to more classic gang-banger activities like dealing drugs and robbing houses.
  • Badass Biker: Steve tries to act like one, as he goes around on a motorcycle with Cool Shades and a trench coat. He's neglectful to his girlfriend, and takes a general cool and detached attitude to most things.
  • Badass Long Coat: Steve tends to wear a long trenchcoat to fit his cool biker persona. Virgil makes fun of him for this, saying he's trying to be Chow Yun-fat in a Hong Kong action movie.
  • The Benchwarmer: Ben makes the basketball team, but never gets to play because he isn't very good. This becomes a plot point when Daric convinces the whole school that Ben's been benched due to racism. The publicity from this causes Ben to quit the basketball team, but draws him closer to Daric's influences.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ben and his friends look like the image of the perfect student, but in their spare time they do petty crime.
  • Bungled Suicide: Virgil shoots himself in the head, but ends up in a coma instead of dying.
  • Character Overlap: The character of Han (played by Sung Kang) is the same Han who appears in The Fast and the Furious films, as confirmed in online interviews by both Justin Linand Sung Kang.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Virgil gets a gun early on in the movie. Later, he develops a propensity to pull it out on people, and eventually uses it to attempt suicide.
  • Cool Car: Han drives a red 1965 Ford Mustang coupe, Steve is seen driving a 4-door BMW in a few scenes and Stephanie by the very end of the movie is scene driving an Audi TT Roadster
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Ben likes Stephanie, but she's dating Steve. After they kill Steve for unrelated reasons, but before Stephanie finds out about his death, Stephanie expresses an interest in Ben and they kiss.
  • Deconstruction: Of quite a few stereotypes about Asian-Americans, particularly Asian and Nerdy.
  • Ditzy Genius: Virgil is a top student in school, but he's an awkward horndog who can't keep a secret and has a tendency to get slightly Ax-Crazy when violence is on the table. This tends to be a problem for the gang's plans.
  • Extracurricular Enthusiast: Ben and his friends are this at first so they can go into an ivy league school, but they soon discover that they can use that as an alibi to be able to be out late to do mischief.
  • Four-Man Band: Only Sane Man: Ben/Han, The Smart Guy: Deric, The Pervert: Virgil and The Butt-Monkey: Virgil
  • Good-Times Montage: Several scenes of Academic Decathalon meetings are montages of the teammates drinking beer, doing cocaine, making out with each other, etc.
  • Gun Struggle: When the gang double-crosses Steve just before the robbery, there's a struggle for a gun and it goes off. The usual outcome of this is subverted- no one was injured by the shot, but Ben comes in and attacks Steve with a baseball bat, ending the standoff.
  • Happily Adopted: Stephanie.
  • High-School Hustler: Deric is a darker spin on this. He's constantly scheming and coming up with new scams, and by the middle of the movie basically rules the school due to his mastery over the school's petty crimes. He's also able to easily manipulate student opinion, like when he gets the whole school angry about the supposed tokenism involved in Ben's position on the basketball team.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts with Ben and Virgil relaxing at a backyard when they hear a buried cellphone ringing. When they dig a hole to find it they find a corpse. The movie then cuts back 5 months earlier.
  • Inside Job: Steve's plan to get the gang to rob his parents' own house in order to give them a "wake-up call".
  • Karma Houdini: The main characters get away with murdering Steve, and there's no indication they'll ever own up to it or get caught. Virgil feels really deep remorse for it, though, and ends up in a coma because of it.
  • Loose Lips: Virgil is very chatty and has trouble keeping secrets. After he takes over the gang's crime ring, the administration busts their test cheating ring after he went around the school bragging about it.
  • Love Hurts: Or rather love kills.
  • Minor Living Alone: 17-year-old Daric lives alone, as his parents travel a lot or work somewhere else. Because of this, his house becomes a setting for many a Wild Teen Party.
  • Mood Whiplash: After the gang kills Steve, the scene cuts back and forth rapidly between a tense and anguished scene of them burying the body and scenes of a carefree, happy party (though all the protagonists look sad when they get a closeup).
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Virgil loses it immediately after they kill Steve, and later on shoots himself out of remorse.
  • New Year Has Come: There's a New Year's party near the end of the movie.
  • New Year's Kiss: Ben has a crush on Stephanie for most of the movie, but she's dating Steve. At the end of the film, after Steve mysteriously disappears (actually, Ben et al. killed him for unrelated reasons), Ben and Stephanie meet at a New Years party and share a kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve. This would seemingly advance their relationship, but due to Ben's sadness and the circumstances surrounding Steve the relationship doesn't get developed much.
  • No Antagonist: All of the conflict in the movie is caused by the protagonists' actions.
  • One Last Job: Ben and Daric have given up their life of crime when Steve persuades them to do the robbery.
  • Pants-Positive Safety: After pulling a gun on a prostitute, Virgil comes running out of the room with his gun shoved in his briefs, wearing nothing else.
  • Pom-Pom Girl: Stephanie does have a sneaky side (shoplifting a CD in one scene) but is generally a nice, easygoing girl who's devoted to Steve (at least until New Year's Eve rolls around).
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Once Virgil gets a gun, he takes to whipping it out at unfortunate times, such as in Vegas when he pulls it on the prostitute and all his friends.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: On their trip to Vegas, Deric procures a prostitute for Ben so he can lose his virginity. They then take turns doing the same.
  • Shared Universe: With The Fast and the Furious.
  • The Sociopath: Daric never shows any empathy for anyone, and show no remorse other than a desire to cover his own ass after they kill someone. He also murders Steve in cold-blood, smothering the unconscious teen after learning he's alive after the gang thinks they've killed him accidentally. He seems to enjoy corrupting people, as when he introduces the Academic Decathalon team to drugs and alcohol, and he's a hedonist himself who spends a lot of time drinking and partying. He is usually pretty unemotional, except when someone insults him, as at the party when he pulls a gun on a guy for disrespecting him. He's also good at manipulating people, as when he gets the whole school on Ben's side for being supposedly tokenized by the basketball coach.
  • Taking the Heat: Han for the cheating scandal.