LOS ANGELES — What kind of movie gets Roger Ebert to stand on a chair and scream?
Well, that's exactly what the aging film critic did at last year's Sundance Film Festival during a discussion about "Better Luck Tomorrow," one of the most buzzed-about flicks to ever hit the fest. (Click for photos from "Better Luck Tomorrow.")
"Better Luck Tomorrow" has been derided by some for its violent subject matter and amoral characters, while championed by big-name critics for its sharp wit and stylish disregard for convention. The film follows Ben (Parry Shen), an overachieving, upper-class suburban kid who shares a penchant for petty crime with his pals. It's a portrayal of Asian-American teens that had some Sundance attendees up in arms and taking out their anger on filmmaker Justin Lin.
"There was a person who stood up [after a screening] and said, 'How could you make a movie that was so denigrating to your race?'," explained John Cho, who plays Steve, while hanging near a basketball court at L.A.'s Pan Pacific Park. "[Ebert] stood up and said, 'You wouldn't say that to a white filmmaker,' which is probably true."
Once Ebert loudly came to the flick's defense, people started paying attention, as he went on to say that Asian-Americans should be free to take on any types of roles they choose without fear of misrepresenting the entire community.
"What is interesting about this movie is, it doesn't say, 'This is an Asian-American movie,' it just presents Asian-American characters," Cho said, echoing Ebert's sentiments. "The movie gives itself the freedom to paint negative portrayals."
"It's threatening to some people because they want a particular image," he added. "And we've gone away from stereotypes in order to kind of negate these bad stereotypes. You see on TV, it's all positive model minority cut-out [type characters] — it's just a function in a scene. What this movie does is give you protagonists that are very deeply flawed. And I think in order for Asian-American cinema to progress, we need to have characters who are deeply flawed."
And Shen, who plays the main character in "Better Luck Tomorrow," feels like folks are getting it. "People came up to me and said, 'After the first five minutes, I totally forgot you guys were Asian,' " he said. " 'Cause it has nothing to do with being Asian, it's universal stuff about ... kids. Not necessarily that they're bad or evil, [just] that they sometimes make wrong decisions."
According to the cast, it was Ebert's vocal seal of approval that got studios interested in "Better Luck Tomorrow," which became the first movie ever purchased by MTV Films. "After he finished speaking, [Miramax heavyweight] Harvey Weinstein wanted us, and then Fox, and MTV Films."
While they haven't hit the A-list just yet, with Tuesday's wide release of "Better Luck Tomorrow" now imminent, the castmembers are getting to see results of their hard work. And they've got enough distance from the film to ponder how it may fit into the general pop-culture landscape.
"I've been [acting] for about eight years," Shen explained, "and I always had been playing someone either behind a desk at a hotel giving someone the keys or behind a door saying, 'Here's your food.' ... I think this will be great because now all of a sudden, Asians will be seen as just regular human beings."
"I think it's going to make the world a better place," he added. "Not to be cliché, but it's gonna help break down barriers, 'cause this is not about Asian people saying, 'Please help me, I'm Asian, no one is listening to me.' It's just like, I'm just living my life as I'm living it and you're watching it and a lot of things that are happening to us onscreen, you are probably going through yourselves."
Ryan J. Downey, with additional reporting by Nick Zano