Beneath the Surface

In mid-April 2003, I was in the Spring semester of my 3rd year of college. Earlier that week, a friend and I made plans to go to the movies. She worked at the nearby theater and  kindly got both our tickets. We met in the lobby and I remember asking, “What are we seeing  anyways?” I’m not sure if it was the noise from the concession stand, but her words barely registered as we made our way to the screening room. What I do remember her saying is “I’ve heard it’s supposed to be really good.” I guess it really didn’t matter to me because it was free anyways, so what did I have to lose? By the time we walked into the auditorium, the film had  already begun. We had just missed the opening scene when we took our seats in the last row of a lightly-crowded theater. 

This was at a time when smartphones weren’t around yet, there was barely any social media, and was a few years before YouTube, so, upon being seated, I was fairly unaware of what I was about to witness. I’d never heard about this film, let alone even seen a poster for it. However I recall how I was also surprisingly unbothered, as I usually would’ve been, when arriving late to the movies. I don’t like missing anything but, for some reason, not having any prior knowledge for how the story began somehow eased my expectations. Prices back then were cheaper than matinees are now, and when you’re a young and broke college student and can get anything for free, you don’t complain.  

Prior to that, I honestly hadn’t been to the movies very much. Maybe only about a few dozen times in my life up to that point and, as a budding film enthusiast, barely even on a  monthly basis. What I wasn’t expecting was, once the movie was over, how it would change my approach to watching movies in the theaters moving forward.  

As the lights went up and we went back to the lobby, I searched for its poster. When I finally found it, I saw the title in big bold red letters: Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). The film is loosely based on an incident from the early ‘90s and also cleverly serves as an origin story for the character Han from the Fast and Furious franchise, which director Justin Lin would go on to direct most of. But back then, the idea of an all Asian-American cast for a film put out by a big studio was unfortunately not common. 

Outside of action films I grew up watching, like Enter the Dragon (1973), which coincidentally also had a character named Han, I hadn’t seen too many Asians represented in American cinema and especially not as the majority of the cast and filmmakers. Lin, however, clearly had this in mind and would also later reunite some of the cast in Finishing the Game (2007), his hilarious mockumentary, about Bruce Lee’s final film. But ironically, one of the main things that made this film feel different was the lack of emphasis on race, ethnicity or culture. There were also no parents present at any time. Outside of casts with all white characters, that approach was never taken in any films I had seen back then. It reminded me of another high school drama that reframed the way younger generations were viewed on screen, The Breakfast Club (1985). Better Luck Tomorrow showed that its cast of characters could just as well be filled with a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal as any other film with youthful white characters, without having to mention or live up to a perceived idea on how a group of people should be portrayed in part because of what they look like.  

The story follows Ben (Perry Shen), an ambitious student who is focused on getting into an Ivy League school. As he studies for the SATs throughout the film, he learns a new word every day and their definitions flash across the screen, foreshadowing the plot points to follow. Though hardworking, you get the sense that he has never really loosened up. He can’t even play basketball without meticulously keeping track of his free throw average. But like many kids his age, he soon becomes bored with the “all work and no play” lifestyle and starts seeking some  thrills. 

What begins as small petty crimes and ways to make some extra money soon leads down a path with much higher risks that may end up costing him everything he has worked so hard to achieve. Of the daily words that Ben studies throughout the movie, the last one it  settles on is this: “inextricable.” That partially describes my preference for seeing new films with no prior context and the desire to see them in theaters. The build-up is what I anticipate and  the way a movie is revealed is what I find most entertaining. It’s what keeps me excited and always surprised, especially when the theater goes dark before the screen is unveiled. Knowing as little as possible before seeing new films is deeply tied to why I continue to watch them. I’m unable to separate that ritual from my own movie going experiences and I humbly credit that to Better Luck Tomorrow.  

I can’t remember exactly the next time I saw it again but I do know it was well over a decade later by which point I myself was working at a movie theater. It hadn’t immediately dawned on me at the time but I eventually realized when I would go see films, then on a nearly weekly basis, I would try to go in blind, knowing little else than the titles on the schedule of new releases. Seeing films this way has forced me to pay better attention without the influence of  trailers and even posters sometimes, both of which I love. More importantly it’s allowed me to take chances and be comfortable in exploring cinema and helps me to have no prior expectations while keeping the experience mysterious.  

We’ve now had two consecutive years where a film by an Asian director has won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In his acceptance speech for Parasite (2019), right before the pandemic last year, director Bong Joon-ho said something that really stayed with me as  someone who has wanted to see a variety of diverse perspectives on the big screen for years: “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” As we find our way back into the Brattle while they start to have regular  programming again, I hope audience members remember his words and additionally feel encouraged to see more films they know nothing about beforehand. There are so many  unknown pleasures awaiting to be discovered.

Billy Thegenus Written by: