RADICAL OR LIBERAL?
Better Luck Tomorrow is symbolic of the hegemonic oppression against Asian Americans, portraying a dystopia of failed resistance within the loose bounds of liberalism (we will call this the “system”). This film encaptures a political message for those who seek opposition and complete undoing of this system as it shows what might happen to them; instability and chaos as symbolized by the death of Steve, a character that died trying to teach his parents a lesson. This is because in reality, the various systems of the world are ideologically and materially controlled by agenda setting oppressors and if one chooses to be completely radical, this is equivalent to committing social or economic suicide, equivalent to alienating oneself from the rest who follow the system (the rest of the world). Textual analysis of this film highlights the “inextricable” system of hegemonic oppression. Asian Americans will continue to play the role of an academically excelling student and one that is submissive (model minority) unless the political economy changes.
Throughout the film Better Luck Tomorrow, SAT vocabulary, which Ben studies from, are shown:
- Punctilious: marked by or concerned about precise exact accordance with the details of codes or conventions
- Temerity: unwise boldness, rash or reckless behavior
- Quixotic: extravagantly idealistic; unpredictable; unrealistic or imaginary
- Temperance: signifying moderation of self-restraint in action and statement
- Catharsis: a cleansing or purging that releases emotion
- Inextricable: that which cannot be disentangled, undone, or loosed; hopelessly intricate, involved or perplexing
The SAT words not only bookmark the stages of the plot in the film, but they also represent the cycle of hegemonic oppression. This is the cycle that Steve talks about when he says “It’s a never ending cycle; It’s time to break the cycle” (BLT). Within the boundaries of liberal hegemony, Asian Americans are expected to be punctilious and submit to stereotypes. However, the system is loose enough to allow for temerity or quixotic behavior by the oppressed actors in society because the disillusionment of complete free will and agency allows for rationalization and normalization of the system. If the system is too strict, the actors will revolt, eventually leading to a revolution of the system (radicalism). The difference between radicalism and liberalism is that while liberalism wants to just keep hegemony in place, radicalism wants to fundamentally undo such social order.
ASIANS ARE “GOOD” KIDS
As Ben and his crew start to involve in deviant behaviors, he narrates that “straight As were our passports to freedom” (BLT). This is an example of Ben trying to work within the system by being academically high-strung, yet committing other acts of criminal behavior. If Ben were truly radical, he would not have been getting good grades and would have done whatever he wanted, regardless of what his parents thought. However, because he is trapped in a society that values grades as it is an indicator of economic success, he is obliged to maintain straight A’s.
The intersectionality between (economic) class and race is interesting because the system tries to use race as a sorting mechanism for class. This example therefore shows how though Ben’s actions may seem to be radical, he is really just playing into the system but expressing a bit of agency by engaging in criminal activities within the loose boundaries of liberalism.
The major drug Ben abuses is cocaine, considered a “white suburban” boy’s drug. This drug has a historical tendency for law enforcement to paint a more lenient picture of victimized white kids as opposed to other abused drugs such as marijuana by blacks. (Side observation: Asians are always existing between whites and other nonwhites, and although they are closer to whites than other races, they will never be whites themselves. This alludes to how Asians are considered to be in the middle class).
What is interesting is that Ben and his crew are not even suspected of abusing illegal drugs because they are assumed to be “good kids” — they are Asian. The use of cocaine is a temporary escape from the system for Ben. It provides a disillusional moment for him to convince himself that he has full agency of his body. The aesthetic portrayal of the delinquent scenes seems to mimic a more “white” culture in which the boys can live in for a moment. However, no matter how many narcotics he takes, he is still Ben, the academically high-achieving asian kid, directly playing into the role that agenda setting oppressors have set up for him in the system. As long as Ben fulfills his role as an Asian, the system still works. The system will not change until liberal hegemony is completely taken apart and this is done so by the oppressed actors refusing to play the roles that they have been assigned. It is not enough to just display deviant behaviors while still playing the original role of the model minority. However, it is understandable that it is hard to break the system because it is all encompassing of social and economic opportunities.
ASIANS ARE SUBMISSIVE CREATURES
As Ben becomes a bench-warmer when he makes his school’s basketball team, he is considered to be the token Asian on the team by others. However, applying the stereotypes of “token asian” and “asians are bad at sports” is invalidating his diligent practices of 215 free throws a day, genuine skill in the sport, and kills his dream to become a pro basketball player. It does not matter that he finally gets to wear a letterman jacket; he is still seen as the token asian. As he is met with conflict with the school newspaper regarding his skill vs. the need for diversity, he decides to avoid it altogether and drop out of the team. In addition, he says “At least it’ll look good on my college applications.” His comment regarding his college application shows that he is playing directly into the system: Asians need to be a good student, go to a college, and get a stable job. What is quite disappointing is that the system seeks to classify the oppressed class into separate races with respective stereotypical jobs as a means to keep the balance of economic dynamics in place. Race should not be indicative of which job opportunities or dreams an individual actor wishes to have.
Even though Ben was great at basketball (another way of exercising agency), he still directly played into the system by being submissive. Ben should not have succumbed into just being a bench-warmer in the first place; he should have asked the coach why he is not actively playing and questioned authority. Secondly, he should not have just quit the team in order to avoid conflict, rather he should have joined the protest to let him play in the games. By quietly avoiding any conflict, he is playing into the stereotype that asians are submissive beings.
Until Asian Americans are able to penetrate and control the political economy of the film industry, films will never be truly radical because of the immense role of profit in cultural meaning-making. Though I applaud the producer that he sought to express a bit of agency by showing a “different” side of Asian Americans, it is still a liberal film. In respect with class, the film producer does not reject norms of capitalism as it tries to follow mainstream movie elements (crime, violence, sex) along with mainstream representation of Asian Americans (smart and submissive).
As long as the hegemonic system in society exists, Asian American films will continue to only play within the bounds of liberalism because it is the only means for profit. Being too radical means losing capital but also in a bigger sense, it also alienates oneself from society because the rest of the world follows the system. Perhaps in light of this element of portraying Asian students with stereotypes, it allows for the characters to be more relatable to the an Asian American audience as many might pity the hardships of parental and communal expectations to achieve academic success and obtain realistic jobs. The interconnection between the political economy (both the film and the world) and the system blurs the future of whether or not true rebellion against the system can be achieved. However, if anything is certain, it is that BLT is not a radical film.
Asato, Julie, Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez, Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin A. Cheung, Jerry Mathers, Patrice L. Cochet, Michael Gonzales, Sandi Lieu, and Yu-jŏng Han. Better Luck Tomorrow. Hollywood, Calif: Paramount, 2003.