It has been almost three months since I wrote a new article, and I have to say that I have been in a creative burnout recently. Before I start writing an article, I usually have to completely process the piece of news, media or idea that I am writing about so I can state all my thoughts and opinions. However, with so much going on in the world right now, I was overwhelmed with how much news and social media that I was consuming. After taking a few weeks to disconnect, I am back on my creative journey. I have a lot of articles ideas so I will start writing again very soon! Now onto the article:
I recently finished my sophomore year at UC Irvine, and out of the 12 classes I took this academic year, a class about Asian American media (with Professor Julie Cho) was probably my favorite class. We discussed how identity, politics and history play into how Asians and Asian Americans are displayed in American media. These representations can be empowering, strategic, and of course, damaging. There are many materials I want to talk about that added so much value to my learning, but my favorite piece of media I watched and studied was Better Luck Tomorrow (2003), a coming-of-age, independent film directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Justin Lin. He is an Orange County native who worked on some of the biggest movie franchises such as the Fast & Furious and Star Trek. However, before Lin worked on cultivating cinematic universes, he had his start in independent filmmaking.
In the class, we discussed how independent filmmaking is one of the most common routes that filmmakers of color take because they want to be in control of how their stories are being portrayed on screen. They want to take ownership because oftentimes, our stories are told through the white gaze or stereotyped in some way. My professor informed the class that one of the three screenwriters who wrote Better Luck Tomorrow was Fabian Marquez, a Latino American filmmaker, creative director and a fellow Anteater (Class of 1995). With the power of LinkedIn, I reached out to Fabian to see if he would be interested in discussing his experience working on the film after he graduated from UCI. He was extremely kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to set up a meeting with me. Calling from opposite ends of the U.S., Fabian and I discussed topics from what he learned on set and the challenges he faced, to the impact the film had on Asian American representation.
Fabian’s interest in movies began when he was a young kid: “My parents used to take our whole family to the movies all the time, so I was exposed to a pretty wide variety of movies from a very young age. So I was already kind of in a film school environment. I was never allowed to watch violent or racy films at home, but I got a pass at the movies. I saw stuff that kids shouldn’t be watching. I remember watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Jack Nicholson when I was like seven. I was the same age as the Danny Torrance character; he was my point-of-view character.”
His exposure to movies growing up led him to pursue the Film and Media Studies program at UCI, in which he expressed how much he enjoyed being a student. The program consists of writing-intensive courses where the majority of class time is spent discussing and analyzing the assigned films and essays. Fabian stated that the courses served him well as a screenwriter, and his career as a filmmaker and creative director. After graduation, he began applying to film festivals and writing workshops and eventually began working on Better Luck Tomorrow with his childhood friend, Justin Lin.
The story follows four Asian American teenagers who live a secret life of crime, drugs and partying while attending a high school in Orange County as high-achieving students. Ernesto Foronda came up with the idea of the original script during his time at Columbia University’s film school and shared the idea with Lin, who then took on the role of director. They eventually asked Fabian if he would be interested in finishing the script with them. Fabian revealed that the script went through about 30 rewrites before and during the production of the film, saying “a script can evolve and get better and better and better with subsequent rewrites, especially when you’re working with a director like Justin who has a vision. And you’re writing towards that vision and he expects a high bar [to be] met.” Fabian initially wanted to complete the script and leave the production to the rest of the team, but after he witnessed the crew coming together, he knew that he needed to be a part of it.
Fabian also worked as a script supervisor, casting associate and post-production supervisor throughout the duration of production. Due to the project being on a tight budget, he had to commit to the project without getting paid and contributed his own money toward the film so they could pay the actors and key crew members. When funding opportunities arose, they were at a crossroads. Many investors wanted to fund their project, but they demanded the filmmakers to change an aspect of the film, whether it be the plot or the casting. The crew decided to stick with the tight budget because they wanted to be in control of their work, such as casting a diverse group of Asian American actors. While John Cho was the most established in the up-and-coming cast, all the actors and creators were on their way to stardom. (Fun fact: for the past 20 years, Sung Kang worked with Justin Lin in the Fast & Furious franchise and continues to do so today. Some fans consider Better Luck Tomorrow to be Han’s character origin story.)
The ultimate goal for all screenwriters is to write a script that gives actors something to work with while giving them creative freedom. For Fabian, there was a particular scene in the film that was difficult to write. The scene when Ben and Daric have a conversation at the hot dog stand where Ben works was challenging: “the nuance of that scene I found difficult because there was a lot of subtexts. In every single scene, we have to meticulously go through it and understand why it is promoting the theme. Is that advancing the story? Is it supporting the arcs? … The early drafts were way clunkier and the characters were saying exactly what they were thinking and no one says exactly what they’re thinking all the time.” I personally love both the awkwardness and moments of silence in many scenes of the film because it portrays realistic interactions I’ve had with my own friends. It displays the difficulties of expressing ourselves truthfully while holding onto the fear that someone might misunderstand or reject us.
The chemistry between the cast members is one of the best I’ve seen in coming-of-age films because the balance of energies between the four main cast members is so rare. Ben and Han are quiet and (mostly) composed, while Virgil and Daric are extraverted and take up a lot of space. Their personalities are completely different from each other, but they complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Fabian shared that the characters were based on the people he and the creators knew at school because they wanted to reflect their high school realities: “Growing up with a diverse group of friends and taking honors classes together felt like a ‘United Nations of friends.’ We had shared experiences of growing up as a people of color and feeling the pressure to be successful, but [we] did not want labels to stop [us].”
Even though Fabian enjoys writing and creatively working in the crime genre, he is naturally drawn to comedy. We can see in the film that there are several lines of dark humor and sarcasm. My ultimate favorite line in the entire film is when Stephanie says “Excuse me, guys. Too much testosterone” when in conversation with three of her male counterparts. The comedic elements in the film make it enjoyable for older audiences, which makes this film timeless (Fun fact: Fabian is currently working to develop a comedic feature film! Super exciting!)
I read that the plot was loosely based on the murder case of Stuart Tay, who was murdered in 1992 by four students in Orange County. Fabian clarified that he “never actually heard about it or looked at the Stuart Tay murder case until way later after we had already done several drafts … it was not really a part of my framework.” Even though the storylines may be familiar, the characters in the film are extremely different from the people in the real case, so “it would be really unfair to the actual people if we were to say that this is them.”
When I first began watching Better Luck Tomorrow, I was a little confused as to why the main protagonist, Ben, is portrayed as a quiet nerd who prepares for his Ivy League applications, attends club meetings during lunchtime, and even reads SAT vocabulary words throughout the day. Asian Americans are most commonly portrayed in stereotypes rooted in the model minority myth (such as being smart, shy and submissive), so I had thought, “Why is an Asian American director and writers perpetuating this?” Nevertheless, I gave the film some time, eventually becoming hooked on the storyline.
Characters that are written for Asian Americans tend to portray us as people with predictable or monolithic, surface-leveled personalities. However, each character in the film grows tremendously and becomes completely different people since they were first introduced to the audience. There is great depth and complexity within the characters, therefore allowing them space to make mistakes and explore their identities as teenagers. The radical, crafted writing encourages audiences, especially young Asian Americans, to embrace vulnerability and self-expression, even if we have felt unable to do so because of friends, family or societal expectations.
Many film reviews and critics, including Asian American audiences, have labeled the film as “Asian American,” but I personally don’t view it as such. Sure, the head creators (Lin, Foronda and producer Julie Asato) are Asian American and the entire cast is as well, but the entire plot does not revolve around the characters’ racial or ethnic identity. I simply view the film as an American coming-of-age story about Californian teens navigating high school, dating and identity in Orange County suburbia. (Fun fact: the film was filmed at Lin’s alma mater, Cypress High School.) The story is about a group of really cool and badass teenagers who rule the halls of their high school. They do not exist in white-dominated/controlled spaces, nor are they the butt of any racial jokes. As an aspiring, Asian American actress and screenwriter, I felt immense joy and pride for the actors and the characters that they played so beautifully.
With the success of the indie film making a total of about $4 million in theatres through the collaboration with MTV Films, Fabian shared that the direct target audience was not a specific group of people, but rather that the film was “aimed at people who love movies and those who like to immerse themselves in a world and suspend disbelief.” When he toured the U.S. to promote the film at festivals, he noticed that the audiences were a group of diverse people, which led to a whole range of reactions. There is an infamous video of where the creators and cast of the film are at the Sundance Film Festival when an audience member publicly stated that he believed it was “immoral” to see a film where Asian Americans are “represented” as violent murderers. A white American film critic, Robert Ebert, made an argument against the person, stating that neither the creators nor the cast needs to “represent” their community. If white filmmakers can make films about any theme or genre, so can any other filmmaker. Fabian voiced that he always loves any sort of reaction, “I even love talking with people who hate the film because it’s gratifying as an artist. At least for me, I’m thrilled by putting the film out there and letting it have a life of its own. Once it’s out of your hands, you can’t control people’s reaction to it and how they interpret it … with their own experiences.”
The film captures a specific time and place so it would be completely different if it was filmed today, but Fabian shared that he is beyond happy with how the film turned out, “the script was constantly changing with how the actors approached the dialogues so a script is never really finished—it is abandoned. I can’t look at it and go ‘oh man, I wish we would have just done that one thing.’ I never looked at it that way … I think it’s a perfect film now and I really don’t think there’s one thing I will ever change about it.” The plot and characters were so amazingly crafted, and I have to say that the film was ahead of its time. I truly hope to see more complex characters played by Asian American actors in the near future.