With creativity and heart but no budget, Leong has been put in charge of Bay Area publicity for the picture, which opens Friday in theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose. For months -- out of sheer love of the movie and a belief in its complex portrayal of Asian-Americans -- Leong has spent his days employing guerrilla-marketing tactics to encourage people to see the independent film that he has been involved with for more than three years.
A few months ago, he sent out an e-mail to nearly every Asian-American studies professor in Northern California, and for the past few weeks, he has visited college classrooms to tell students about the movie. He is aided by a splashy, drama-filled documentary he directed about the making of Better Luck Tomorrow called BLT Genesis, which will air on PBS in May.
During classroom visits, he addresses the students coolly and casually, in a tone that belies his passion for the film. "This was a community, grass-roots effort where people came together to work on this movie," Leong said recently at San Francisco State. "And then it became this fairy tale story where it went to Sundance, and got picked up by MTV Films [for distribution], and it's actually being released in theaters on April 11. So I'm here to get you guys to support it."
Though Leong admits he doesn't enjoy speaking in public, and his audience sometimes asks questions about the film that he can't answer, most students seem genuinely interested in the movie clips and in Leong's message.
"It's important, I believe, because it's going to open the door to Asian-Americans in the film industry," says Carl Ngo, a San Francisco State business administration major, in a noisy hallway after Leong's presentation. "Not a lot is known [in mainstream media] about the darker side of Asian America. From the clips that we saw, it actually portrays a lot of things that we really deal with in the neighborhood. I related to the kinds of things I saw."
Better Luck Tomorrow has, indeed, followed a fairy tale- like trajectory. After making the rounds at various prestigious film festivals such as Sundance and collecting rave reviews, the movie was bought by MTV Films and Paramount Classics in early 2002 -- a first for an independent Asian-American film.
A moment at Sundance helped launch the picture and distill its importance. After the third and final screening of Better Luck Tomorrow, a man seated near the rear of the theater raised his hand to ask the evening's last question during the post-film discussion with director Justin Lin.
"I'm really depressed from the film," the man said, a clear edge in his voice. "Because one, it looks very good. Two, the actors are very good. You know how to make a movie. But why would you, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a film that is so empty, amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?"
Well-paced and entertaining, the film can also be challenging and shocking as it chronicles the downward spiral of six overachieving high school students into a criminal lifestyle; the question ignited the audience.
Various audience members attempted to address the query, and actor Roger Fan defended the film from the stage by saying that it was "the most damned progressive script for Asian-Americans I've ever seen in my life."
But it wasn't until Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert -- who usually remains silent during Q&A sessions -- stood up to speak that the audience quieted. "What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is, nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, "How could you do this to your people?'" Ebert said, gesturing passionately. "The film has the right to be about these people, and Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be."
With that inadvertent endorsement by a film-world heavyweight, the controversial Better Luck Tomorrow had been catapulted to a level of mainstream attention that no other Asian-American independent film has ever experienced.
Though Asian-American independent cinema has a rich history dating from the 1960s, Better Luck Tomorrow is the first film to garner major studio backing (The Joy Luck Club was conceived by studio executives, and movies featuring Asian martial arts stars are a different animal altogether).
As a first of its kind, the film could serve as Hollywood's barometer of the viability of Asian-American cinema in the mainstream, depending on the way it fares at the box office. Industry executives and Asian-American filmmakers are said to be watching Better Luck Tomorrow closely.
"If Justin's film does well, and there's excitement in the air, then it could help my film do well," says director Eric Byler, whose Charlotte Sometimes -- about the unconventional relationships of a Japanese-American car mechanic -- opens in art-house theaters in May. "And I have a film I'm getting financed right now. We have half a million. We're trying to raise $2 million more. It'd be much easier if Justin's film makes it."
Darrell Hamamoto, an Asian-American studies professor at UC Davis who writes frequently about film, agrees. "There's a lot riding on this film," he says. "If it goes well, the industry will be there, waving cash at these talented Asian-American writers and directors. If it gets a lukewarm reception, then the next person with a hot movie is going to have to work from ground zero."
This point has not been lost on Asian-Americans in the Bay Area, who have eagerly joined Leong to form street teams intended to encourage people to "vote at the box office" and send the message that moviegoers support Asian-American films.