“The Model Minority” in Better Luck Tomorrow

1928 words (8 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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 “Better Luck Tomorrow” turns the idea that Asians are the “model minority” upside down by depicting Asian characters in roles of great depth and dimension that are typically reserved for white leads. Specifically, the film interacts with the idea of the “model minority” through the characterization of Ben, and Steve. The film dismantles the model minority stereotype through the violence Ben and Steve engage in, even toward their own family, and through the sexual rivalry incited by Ben and Steve’s characters. Over the course of the film, Ben defies the model minority status by showing no respect for academic integrity. Steve on the other hand, exemplifies a model minority. He has a good family, fancy cars, and a definite admission into an ivy league; yet he still isn’t happy and wants more from his life. Director Justin Lin contradicts the seemingly universal acceptance of the model minority idea by taking a group of highly achieving Asian American students and turning them into criminals. The students fulfill their model minority stereotypes by day, only to completely contradict them with criminal activity.

The idea of Asians Americans being the “model minority” in America is a decades old myth based on an accepted notion that all Asian Americans are successful. While the model minority is thought by some to be a “positive” stereotype, it is rooted in blatant racism and stereotypes about the Asian race.  This myth invalidates the challenges and discrimination that Asian Americans experience as an immigrant group. The idea that Asians are the “model minority” places them on a pedestal where they are expected to be follow the rules, do what they are supposed to do, and be successful doing it. The notion that success is a given for them is damaging because society assumes that they are doing just fine on their own, and do not require public assistance. The myth creates a systematic disadvantage for Asian Americans by presupposing that they have achieved the “American Dream”, all while sugarcoating the hardships and discrimination that Asian Americans experience.

Throughout the film, it becomes clear that these young men are more complex than the model minority that society perceives. Ben’s character in particular subverts commonly held ideas about Asian Americans. In the beginning of the film, he becomes involved in a cheat sheet scam. His attitude for school shows that he values getting a high grade over respect for academic integrity or actual learning. Throughout the film, he is shown methodically memorizing words in an attempt to improve his SAT score but he does not seem to learn any practical meaning from his efforts, and he even seems to act in direct disregard to the meanings of the various words that he “learns” throughout the film. He devalues education by pursuing whatever means necessary to get the highest possible scores, and pays little regard to whether he actually learns anything. This subverts stereotypes about Asians because while Ben is certainly high achieving, the means leading to his achievements are far from honest hard work.

  The film also pushes against the “model minority” idea through the sexual rivalry between Ben and Steve. Interestingly enough the object of their interest, Stephanie, is also Asian but adopted into a white family. Her character complicates the idea of the model minority because she highlights the wide range of Asian American identities that stereotypes do not recognize. The rivalry between Ben and Steve for Stephanie defies the common stereotype in films that Asian men have little to no sexuality. This stereotype is common in movies where Asian males are martial artists. While both white and Asian men play martial artists in these films, it is only the Asian male who loses his sexuality and is defined only by his discipline.

The de-sexualization of Asian men is pushed against in Better Luck Tomorrow, because the men’s sexual desires are evident throughout the film. Ben pines after Stephanie and becomes close with her, but it is Steve who reaps the benefits of their closeness. To Ben, Steve is everything that he is not. Steve emasculates Ben by exploiting Ben’s sexual desire for Stephanie to get what he wants. He calls Ben’s masculinity into question by suggesting that Ben take his girlfriend to the formal, despite knowing that he had feelings for her. This suggests that Steve sees Ben as a “model minority”; a safe, nerdy, virginal guy who is not a threat to his relationship.

The stereotype of Asian men as desexualized is further defied by the teen boys embracing hyper-masculinity. Han is portrayed as the most sexually confident of the boys, and he seems unable to channel his emotions in a socially acceptable way, resulting in violent acts. Virgil, on the other hand, is sexually inexperienced but constantly fantasizes and makes lewd comments about women. He repeatedly expresses his desire to go to college so that he will be able to sleep with a woman. He attempts to fulfill this desire when the boys hire a prostitute for the night. Despite Virgil and Ben’s sexual attempts, Virgil remains a virgin throughout the film, relying on his gun to compensate for his masculinity, and Ben continues to pine after Stephanie, but is unable to move forward in his relationship with her as she is still dating Steve.

Steve’s wealth and class status alienates him from the other boys. Steve seemingly conforms to every feature of the “model minority”; wealth, a loving family, fancy cars, a private school education, and a guaranteed admission to an Ivy League college of his choosing. Despite the fact that he has achieved what every “model” Asian American hopes for, he still is not satisfied. He also complicates the idea of the model minority by presenting the question of what the model Asian American strives for once they have achieved everything? Steve’s feelings of being trapped within his own life lead him to try to break the cycle by giving his own parents a “wake up call”. He enlists the help of the boys and devises a plan to steal from his own home. He believes that by doing this he will teach his parents the lesson that materialistic success does not guarantee happiness. This violent act against his own parents rejects stereotypes that expect Asians to feel extreme sense of loyalty and respect for their parents. This final act of violence towards his own parents is his rejection of his identity as a model minority. His plan ultimately fails however, when the boys decide to teach him a lesson themselves.

Violence is ultimately the boys’ final resort to remove themselves from their identity as a “model minority”. Ben, Virgil, Han, and Darik’s lives are quickly consumed by crime and violent acts which culminate to Ben’s final act of murdering Steve. In this action, the boys are further removed from the idea of the model minority but also conceding to it. The boys can’t help but be attracted to the benefits that come with having achieved the “model” status. The boys go against Steve because he is everything that they are not. Steve is the model minority, from his wealth, and stellar academic record, to his social status. The boys know that they could never achieve the “model” status that Steve had. The fact that the boys care so much about achieving the success that Steve had, shows that they have a strong desire to conform to their model minority status that is expected of them. On the other hand, the sheer violent nature of the act further removes them from their stereotypes. It could even be argued that this act was the boys attempt to re-claim their masculinity that they had been stripped of as Asian males.

Despite a clear push against the model minority myth, Ben, Daric, and Virgil conform to certain aspects of the stereotype. Daric is perhaps more obsessed than his friends with appearing perfect on paper despite his criminal actions. He is the class valedictorian and the president of numerous clubs. All three boys compete in the academic decathlon, and are very competitive to win more titles to perfect their resumes. The boys consistently talk about their dreams of being accepted into Ivy League schools. Although by the end of the film the boys are criminals, they remain as college bound as ever. While parents are conspicuously absent from the film, the boys still worry about their parents finding out about their deviant behaviors. This suggests that they still have some obedience to authority and, therefore, are not deviant in all respects. Their obsession with appearing like the perfect “model minority” on paper is in stark contrast to the extremely amoral activities they partake in during their personal time.

Throughout the film, the characters use their successful academic lives as a facade for their personal lives that are filled with criminal deviance. The characters understand that they can use their model minority status to their advantage. As long as they fulfill society’s expectations of them; achieving good grades, and being successful in their activities, they will be perceived as academically successful and therefore morally sound. “Our straight as were our alibis. Our passports to freedom.” This enables the group of young men to get away with their criminal activities without raising suspicion. They learn to push the boundaries of their status as model minorities by taking part in acts that are more and more criminal in nature as the film progresses. The boys go from committing petty acts of dishonesty like selling cheat sheets, to criminal offenses including hiring a prostitute, and murder. By depicting the characters as increasingly morally deviant, Lin is pointing out the absurdity of the stereotypes about Asian Americans as they are so far removed from the truth.

By presenting both conformity and deviance to the model minority myth, an argument is formed which rejects commonly held stereotypes about Asian Americans. While the Asian American characters in this film may not have been flawless, they had dimension and depth that Asian characters typically lack in films. “Better Luck Tomorrow” succeeded in pushing against harmful stereotypes by offering a much needed different depiction of Asian characters. Just as society struggles to realistically perceive Asian Americans, the characters in the film struggle with their own identities. In the end however it is revealed that they are just like everyone else, flawed, complicated, and human. The films message emphasized that Asians just like any other group of people are complex, and there is no need to reduce them to anything simpler.     

Bibliography

  • Chow, Kat. “’Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks.” NPR, NPR, 19 Apr. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks.
  • Nishi, Koko. “Mental Health Among Asian-Americans.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/asian-american/article-mental-health.aspx.
  • Hillenbrand, Margaret. Of Myths and Men: “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the Mainstreaming of Asian America Cinema. 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/20484412.
  • Viswat, Linda. “Television Exposure, Model Minority Portrayals, and Asian-American Stereotypes: An Exploratory Study.” Television Exposure, Model Minority Portrayals, and Asian-American Stereotypes: An Exploratory Study, 2011, immi.se/intercultural/nr26/ramasubramanian.htm.
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