If the stars of “Better Luck Tomorrow” want to make their own good fortune, they need to do it now.
“I spent yesterday handing out postcards and buttons to people in Times Square, and I’ve slapped our movie posters all over the city,” says Roger Fan, one of the stars of the film about all-American Asian teens-turned-gangsters.
After a pause, he adds: “You don’t really see Keanu Reeves on the street handing out things for `The Matrix,’ do you?”
In a cinematic landscape where Asian stars are mostly martial arts imports who karate-chop their way through action films, a gritty drama about Asian-American youths could be a tough sell to audiences unaccustomed to identifying with the community.
So the team behind “Better Luck Tomorrow” has been hitting the pavement in big cities and small film festivals.
“When you see Asian faces onscreen, it is always for an `Asian’ reason,” says Fan, who joins a cast led by Parry Shen (“The New Guy”) and includes John Cho (both “American Pie” films, “American Beauty”), Sung Kang (“Pearl Harbor”), Jason Tobin and Karin Anna Cheung.
“People don’t think about the average Asian-American guy. Since they don’t write stories about him, they don’t legitimate his existence,” he says.
“There is no support for Asian-American men in a society that expects them to be the model minority,” says NaRhee Ahn, program director at the Asian-American Arts Alliance.
“They get punished for that same stereotype; socially not adjusted, not sexy, the guy who can’t get the girl.”
“Better Luck Tomorrow” departs from the immigrant narrative of such movies as “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), putting its characters in the pressure-cooker of overachieving students in a California high school.
“This isn’t to belittle (movies that just explore Asian-American) identity,” says Larry Jung, of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE). “But I want to see more range from Asian-Americans.”
Asian-Americans make up 4.2 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 census, but a Screen Actors Guild study from the same year shows that only 1.7 percent of all lead roles cast went to Asian/Pacific Islanders.
“The characters of `Better Luck Tomorrow’ are mindful of their heritage without being consumed by it,” Jung says, “and, as a result, the film can explore other tensions more thought-provoking than race.”
The four teenagers at the center of “Better Luck Tomorrow” are perfectionist scholars by day, increasingly violent pretty criminals by night.
They get hooked on bad behavior, selling drugs and carrying guns, gaining power and popularity while losing control of their lives.
However, potential investors for the film thought the race of “Better Luck’s” characters was not provocative enough to translate into box-office receipts.
“People really liked the script, but they were like, `Oh, I know Macaulay Culkin, maybe we can do this with an all-white cast,'” remembers writer-director Justin Lin.
“I wanted it to have this perspective of Asian-Americans. Really quick I learned the only leverage I have as filmmaker is to say, `No.'”
Instead, for his first solo feature effort, Lin took a classic indie route:
He maxed out 10 credit cards, tapped friends and peers who would work for free and found support in such unlikely investors as entertainer MC Hammer (the pair met at a Las Vegas trade show).
At last year’s Sundance Film Festival MTV Films bought distribution rights for $500,000.
Since then, an underground network of Asian-American organizations have gone to great lengths to make sure people know about the film.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that money drives the industry,” says Lin,
“If you make a movie with a talking kangaroo that makes $100 million, they’re going to make more of them,” he continues. (Actually, “Kangaroo Jack” has made almost $66 million in the U.S.)
“If this film does well, they will greenlight other Asian-American films, and we will get to represent the multiple perspectives of our community.”
“That’s how we will build an Asian-American cinema.”