This is Part of the Fast and the Furious?
Better Luck Tomorrow
When it comes to the The Fast and the FuriousStarted as a film about undercover policing in the illegal street-racing community, this series has grown to encompass a number of different genres and become one of the most bankable franchises in the world. series, there's actually a lot of extra ephemera you have to keep up with if you want the "whole story". Sure, you can just watch the main 11 films (including Hobbs & Shaw if you want or, you know, don't), but there's also a couple of short films and an animated TV series you could watch as well. And then, quite by happenstance, there's an unrelated film that also happens to tuck into the continuity as well.
Released in 2002, Better Luck Tomorrow is a high school crime film directed, and co-written, by Justin Lin. Those who have heard of Lin likely know that he's the director of many of the Fast & Furious films, having come to the franchise as the director for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, sticking around for Fast & Furious, Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, and then coming back for F9: The Fast Saga. Those, you will note, are some of the most successful films in the franchise (not counting Tokyo Drift. All told, Lin's direction powered the series through $2.6 Bil of its overall take. That's huge money.
Interestingly, and then reason why we're talking about Fast & Furious in a seemingly unrelated film, is that when Lin came to the franchise for its third film, he decided to bring one of the characters from Better Luck Tomorrow along for the ride: Han Lue, played by Sung Kang. Kang originated the role in Better Luck Tomorrow, and he got to reprise the role for every Fast film he's been in since. And, let's be honest, Han has been the best part of many of those films, which his casual charm and laid back attitude. Han is great.
The film he comes from is also great, but in its own way that is very, very different from Fast & Furious. Where those street racing films have become more and more overblown as time has gone on, 2002's Better Luck Tomorrow is a very low-level crime film, all about high schoolers doing little, petty crimes. We're talking making cheat sheets for test scores, stealing from and selling tech back to retail stores, and a little minor drug dealing. These aren't glossy street racers, they're just students. Kids, really, and were it not for Han you wouldn't even think this film has anything to do with Fast & Furious at all... because it doesn't.
Better Luck Tomorrow focuses on Parry Shen as Ben Manibag. Ben is a dedicated overachiever, looking for any way to improve his grades, and himself, so that he can move on to a good college and continue the next part of his life. He practices a word a day, ingraining it into his mind and his vocabulary. He practices basketball free throws every day just to develop that skill and make it into the varsity team (so he can have it on his transcripts). He is on the academic decathlon team (again, so it can be on his transcripts). Everything he does is to study, to get good grades, and to make himself a shining example for colleges.
But then Daric Loo (Roger Fan) comes calling. Daric wants Ben's help in creating cheat sheets for tests. He runs the racket in the school, along with being the likely valedictorian and head of every club, but he knows Ben has the brains to get the sheets ready and make things happen. And that one little bit of a scam leads Ben, Daric, Ben's friend Virgil (Jason Tobin), and Virgil's cousin Han (Kang), down the path of petty crime, and then serious crime, until their life come to a very violent and bloody incident that changes it all for everyone.
Better Luck Tomorrow is a film with an (almost) entirely Asian cast and it's story clearly does come from the Asian perspective of its creator. When making the film, director Lin was offered $1 Mil in funding if Macaulay Culkin was cast in the lead role of Ben; that was rejected so that Lin, despite making this film on the money from ten credit cards, could keep the film related to his own experiences. The characters, the setting, and the story feel specific and honest. This was clearly a story in the vein of "write what you know", creating this cast and setting that feels lived in.
I am not Asian myself, and I know its stereotypical to say, "all Asian students study all the time and worry about their grades." But that stereotype does come from the educational expectations of students from those countries. If you weren't in the upper one percent of the upper one percent of students in Japan or China were you even going to be able to get into a good college and then land a good job? You had to push yourself to study so you could push yourself to study more so you could then push yourself in your job. That's a cultural expectation and it feels like Ben, and his friends, struggle with the same expectations here even though their families are living in America. Different country, same expectations.
Against that back drop, then, is it any wonder that the students we follow in the film snap. They have so much pressure on them to succeed, to be the best, that they have to find some kind of release somewhere. Little cons, little crimes, that then lead to larger crimes, are their way to succeed and grab that bit of something that says they're doing it their way. They become big men on their high school campus as they have to ability to get anything, to do whatever they want, without worry. It makes them feel powerful, maybe as they're fighting what they feel is a system that expects too much of them.
But while they're pitched as our protagonists, Ben especially, we can't think of them as heroes in any way. It's not just because they dip their toes into a life of crime (from very early in the film). It's also because their crimes escalate, and soon there's even a body on the ground. This recolors everything we know about them, makes us think of them not as good guys who have taken a turn but kids that, deep down, may just be broken. The body drops and many of them are able to just move on, act like it didn't happen. That's dark, and it speaks to the way that they have to view their own world, ignoring whatever doesn't fit their life plan... even if it's a dead body.
Better Luck Tomorrow is a strong character study, and an even stronger drama. It does have great characters in it, especially Ben and Han (always the scene stealer). But it's dark, without a real happy ending to it (as you'd expect). It's a film you might come to (as I did) because of its connection to Fast & Furious, just to see the origin of one of the characters you like. What you'll find, though, is a very different film. An involving film, but not a happy go lucky silly film like the main franchise.
Its inclusion in the Fast & Furious franchise might just do a disservice to this film. It doesn't fit the rest of the franchise, and is probably not going to be a film that fans of Fast ↦ Furious are going to watch more than once. It's good, but I don't think its re-watchable unless it speaks directly to you. For fans of the silly franchise, this film really doesn't work in the greater context at all... but at the same time, if it gets people to watch this film I don't think that's a bad thing.