So the Sundance Film Fest is taking place this week and that event has a special significance for YOMYOMF. Offender Justin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow premiered at that festival 11 years ago and that led to the film getting picked up by MTV and all the success that came afterwards. Obviously YOMYOMF would probably not exist had the film not been selected by Sundance.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the theatrical release of the film so thought this might be a good occasion to look back at BLT. Some of the Offenders worked directly on the film, while others of us came into the fold later, but I think we all have some stories about how BLT impacted our worlds.
I remember back in 2000, my first full-length play was being produced and Offender Roger had been cast in it. Shortly before the official rehearsal period was to start, Roger came up to me and said he had been cast in this micro-budget indie film directed by Justin Lin (whom I knew socially at the time) and since it was shooting the same time as the play’s run, would it be OK if he dropped out of the play to do the film? Now, a lot of people in retrospect will tell you that they knew BLT was going to be a huge success from the start which is bullshit, but Roger was one of the few who did believe that from the beginning. He felt terrible he had to drop out of my play but explained that the BLT script was one of the best he had ever read and felt this could be a break-through project for Asian Americans. So others will tell you they knew this would be big from the start, but Roger is the only person I remember saying that at the time. And of course, I told him he couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that so happy to accommodate his schedule.
The other vivid memory I have of BLT is the very first screening at Fotokem in Burbank. The film had just been completed and most of the cast/crew were there as well as some industry folks. This was the first time anyone was seeing the film–before it had been accepted into Sundance, before anyone knew what would happen, if anything. I think after the film ended, there was a feeling in the audience that we had seen something cool, but what I most remember is an incident that happened after the screening and this is a story that’s been shared previously on this blog so some of you may be familiar with it.
Most people were coming up to Justin to congratulate him on a job well done, but one particular person–an Asian American agent at one of the big Hollywood agencies came up to him and starting tearing into him about how bad the film was, how it was a disgrace for Asian Americans, how Justin had wasted his time and resources–all the worst things you can say. All of us have probably had encounters with this type–the Asian American in Hollywood who’s harsher with other Asian Americans as a way of proving they were different and could be a part of the white boys club. Suffice to say, this agent and everyone else quickly changed their tune once the film was a success.
So what’s everyone’s most interesting or vivid memory of BLT–for both those who were a part of the film and those who experienced it as a viewer?
ALFREDO: I came late to the party. Before meeting Justin or any of the other folks involved with the movie, I saw it in a small theater in Berkeley, and, to this day, when I describe BLT to people, I say: “Overachieving Asian high school students by day, petty criminals by night.” But for me, “Asian” is the least important part of that sentence. What struck me, and what has remained with me – and all you have to do is look around for continuing examples: a cheating, doping superstar cyclist who starts up a wonderful charity – is that the movie is about how complex and contradictory people really are. Very few of us are just sinners or saints – most of us are both – and the movie revelled in this. And, getting back to race for just a minute, it was nice to see someone blow the lid off the whole “model minority” thing.
QUENTIN: I was at the Fotokem screening and I remember there was some “industry people” who didn’t like it and later put their feet in their mouths. I was also at the Century City AMC premiere where I bought some tickets and invited my friends to go. And everyone Asian American came out to support the film to make it a smash on its initial limited release… Let’s make it happen again for other Asian American movies!
DHH: I showed up in Dallas to speak at the 2002 Asian American Journalists Association. BLT had just screened there, and the buzz was amazing: everyone was talking about this film featuring Asian American characters that was like nothing anyone had ever seen, a real paradigm-changer. When I saw BLT a few months later, it immediately became one of my all-time favorite movies. Exploring the dark side of over-achievement, the film delves into the Asian American psyche with such honesty and feeling that any audience member can relate to it. As always, the most specific stories prove to be the most universal.
SUNG: My favorite BLT memory was with my partner in crime: Roger Fan. I still chuckle when I think about it from time to time. But it’s helped me to stay grounded. We were so excited that the film was talk of the Sundance fest. I personally had no idea what happened. From one screening, people looking half asleep to a Wednesday screening at the Library, where we became the hot, controversial film of that year. We went from random Chinese dudes walking around Salt Lake, to the cool guys from that crazy film. I wish I had recorded the conversations Roger and I had about our Hollywood dreams coming to life. What this all meant for us. What we were going to do, where we were going to be. We were in the moment, we felt legit. The future seemed bright, here we come Hollywood! Party invites here, there, everywhere. The BLT crew made it to the in crowd.
Then he arrived…’Mr.Comedic Irony’. Rog and I were waiting in line for The Robert Redford Party. Surely we were on some list, so they claimed. We waited patiently…that’s what one does when you have no place to go. lol. We would get in soon, so they claimed. Redford Party at Redford’s restaurant was the party to be at. If you were somebody you were inside. Hence Roger and I were waiting in one of the two lines. We stood outside as if we had a purpose in standing around. Minutes later a red Jeep Cherokee pulled up with two hick dudes in it. They waved us over. Roger and I calmly strutted towards them. For sure they saw the film, surely they knew us. Maybe an autograph? A twangy voice yelled out…”Excuse me, is this the Chinese Film Festival?!” Ching Ching Chip Chop Kung Foooo! HA!HA!HA! The Cherokee roared away, laughing. I looked over at Rog, boy was he pissed/hurt. I thought the two hicks were pretty funny, they seemed be having a good time. They had some balls for sure. What if Roger and I knew some of that Ninjitsu stuff? In hindsight it was a Lesson and a bit of humble pie. The 2 hicks showed us we had much further to go. Life lifts you up and brings you back with a slap sometimes/a lot of the times. Healthier to have a sense of humor about it all. Enjoy the journey and ‘shared’ memories, not much point thinking about the destination. We did eventually get into the party. It wasn’t much. The line outside was funnier.
ROGER: My most vivid memory of Sundance and Better Luck Tomorrow was much less a memory and more of a sensation. There was a warmth that surrounded the cast & crew and a sense of hope that you would only expect to get from the company of your closest family and friends. So it was strange and totally unexpected to experience this “sensation” so deeply on a film production. What was this sensation? It’s hard to put into words but I’m fairly certain that this “sensation” was the critical and intangible element that pushed BLT past the tipping point from just a good competition film and into the realm of an inspired experience that reached well beyond cinema and storytelling.
Pretty much every single person on the BLT cast and crew had a similar story – each loved working at their respective Hollywood trades but had very little opportunity to ascend to the heights that their talents so desired to be at. Most of us were broke. And, after toiling for years in Hollywood, most of us were close to broken. All of us wanted that one shot to prove to the world that we were good enough to make something great if only given the opportunity. Justin Lin gave us that opportunity. And we took it. And it wasn’t for the money or the glamour because there was none. But there was some pretty darn good Filipino food.
And so we embarked, a motley crew of Hollywood misfit toys, each with a serious bone to pick with their professional destinies, and all led by a fearless director who had yet to graduate from UCLA film school. The result was pretty fucking awesome. If anything, the energy was pure and selfless. That energy, that “sensation” was a combination of passion, gratitude, hope, and underdog grit. Justin then took all that good stuff and channeled it into his script and onto the screen and crafted a film that not only entertained but had the capacity to deeply inspire in ways well beyond the movie theatre. It was really cool to be a part of something so pleasantly unexpected and so uniquely impactful.
JEROME: I first met Justin at a family get-together, though I don’t actually remember this. To this day, my only recollections are from my dad and how he played a game of basketball with him.
The reason this is important is that when I later saw BLT in theaters, I walked out firstly impressed by the movie itself but secondly – and perhaps more importantly – realizing my dream wasn’t so impossible.
See, I was in elementary school when it came out and this was around the same time I’d made up my mind to be a filmmaker. Thinking that someone I’d actually met – not just seen on TV or read about in the magazines – could have their movie up on the marquee and walk that path was very inspiring to young me.
DAVID: “Guess what David… there’s an Asian American film made by this Asian guy and you have to support it!” That’s the first introduction from my friends from Hawai’i to see this film. I was in LA and every one of my moviegoing friends encouraged me to see it. I didn’t. Waa waaaaah. Because it was SOLD OUT! But I eventually saw it on video and of course I was amazed by this film.
It’s easy to say “I’m supposed to support this film”, but I have to say that I supported a “good film”. Who knew that I was going to befriend Justin, Ernesto, Sung, Roger and the family in the future. Now I have to like the movie even more… HAHA!
Did the movie change my life… IT SURE DID! Just like many movies have… but this one came with a relationship with the BLT gang that I still don’t think I deserve… you guys are the best.
EMMIE: I remember seeing the cast & crew at various points throughout the filming, and admiring their energy and sharp focus. Justin was averaging two or three hours of sleep a night. One day he said, “Last night I got SO MUCH SLEEP. I slept five hours. I have a headache. I think it’s because I slept so much.”
It was fantastic to see an Asian-American film succeed (especially one starring so many of our sexy, fine bruthas). I’d previously seen some of Justin’s film & video works, and he was/is clearly a super-talent. It’s great to see someone achieve the success that they deserve. Happy anniversary to BLT!
BEVERLY: I was there for most of the pre-journey of BLT. I remember Justin making the decision to leave his job to make the film, I remember him writing the script late into the night, I remember him asking people to invest in the film and being laughed at. But the one moment I remember most is sitting in the living room, and him saying, “You wanna see the dailies?” And he pulled up the shot in which Sung’s character is introduced: a long dolly shot in which the camera rolls along the ground and finally pans up to reveal Sung smoking a cigarette against a red car in front of a backdrop of grey clouds. Justin was very quiet, he could get extremely focused and critical of his own work and I could see his eyes darting from right to left determining which of the takes was THE shot he was going to use in the film. And I sat there in the dark, amazed that this shot existed. That the friend I knew as Justin -happy, basketball playing, funny Justin- envisioned it and made it a reality. That’s when I realized there was an intensity about this friend of mine, and that he had every intention of making a film that would change everyone’s lives involved with it.
Check out these previous blogs about the background behind BLT:
Check out Evan Leong’s doc BLT: Genesis about the making of BLT: