Just don't think "A's" mean "All's well."
Justin Lin, director of "Better Luck Tomorrow," wanted to make a film that "resisted the standard stories and stereotypes prevalent in America." He succeeded because this bold Asian-dominated film is not just about Asian Americans but more about rich Orange County high school seniors who use their credentials of "A's" to scam financial and peer advantages while descending to amorality: "Our straight A's were passports to freedom."
Amiable narrator Ben (Perry Shen), like his namesake from "The Graduate," initially can't figure out where he fits into the scene until he gangs up with three other bright buddies to pull off projects from selling cheat sheets to drugs. Director Lin and actor Shen sharply show how a drifting young man can make small decisions (like agreeing to sell the sheets to the school's coolest and most dangerous dude) which smoothly escalate to murder.
Throughout Shen shows a youthful sweetness that belies the corruption he fosters, to the point that he is casually called a "gangster" and a member of the "Asian Mafia." Shen's mastery of the dramatic nuance (he is a real-life drama teacher) is best shown in his conflicted relationship with Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), whom he loves from a distance, befriends as a lab partner, and strangely shares with her boyfriend. All this adequately symbolizes the ambiguous world of A students caught in F situations. Part of the blame, for instance, might be related to her being adopted or our never seeing their parents.
In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of "Tomorrow" is the almost total absence of parents. Not a bad thing, for the seniors can make their decisions without adult complications--unalloyed decisions, honest, and often flawed. Unlike in "Risky Business," where parental disapproval is a palpable fear, in "Tomorrow" the teenagers fear no reprisals under the protective mantle of academic achievement.
"Better Luck Tomorrow's" own achievement is to show that teenage pluck and boredom demonstrate what a promising generation they are, regardless of race. Just don't think "A's" mean "All's well."
Apropos, finally, is what Joyce Cary said in "Art and Reality": "It is typically the most intelligent and sensitive of the young who become revolutionaries, destroyers."