Director Justin Lin waits quietly in the lobby of the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater, the largest of the Sundance venues. It‘s approaching noon on the first Saturday of the Sundance Film Festival, and in about 15 minutes, the 30-year-old director’s second feature, Better Luck Tomorrow, one of the 17 entries in the festival‘s dramatic competition, will receive its world premiere. The screening is sold out. There’s already buzz on the film, generated, in part, by Lin‘s selection as one of Variety’s “10 Directors To Watch,” and by the fact that before the festival a rough cut of the film had been stolen from a production house and slipped to suits at Fox and USA. As the lobby crowd grows louder and more tightly packed, the film‘s crew and cast circulate expectantly. Lin stands in place, eyes rimmed red from a lack of sleep. A BLT watch cap is pulled down almost to the tops of his tortoise-shell frames, and a plaid scarf winds up around his neck from a charcoal greatcoat; little of him shows, and his placid mien betrays even less of his state of mind.
I ask if he’s nervous. “Yeah,” he nods, with a Park City sniffle. “I‘m nervous about talking to the crowd, but, y’know, they say I should just be myself.” I pass on some advice a musician once gave me — don‘t be yourself, be your persona. Lin laughs, then shrugs, “I don’t know what that is yet.”
It‘s an apt response from someone whose film is about the quest for personal definition. The story of four Asian-American, grade-A high school guys living in the SoCal suburbs, and of the phenomenon of what Lin calls “shopping for identity,” Better Luck Tomorrow aims to explode the stereotype of the passive, academically obsessed Asian-American male. What distinguishes the film, which Lin co-wrote with Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez, from more sober indie fare by and about ethnic Americans, is a wicked sense of humor and a provocative ending that, as he emphasizes repeatedly in the days to come, he hopes will engender discussion. Lin may not know what his persona is yet, but he seems unafraid of taking some risks on the way to finding out.
“Justin’s willing to swim in the deep end of the pool,” says Jeff Dowd, who, along with indie heavy John Sloss, is one of BLT‘s two producers’ reps. “It‘s significant that this kid is willing to take a chance and make a controversial movie.” Maybe so, but while Lin is savvy enough to get that a controversial ending will draw attention, without the glasses, hat and overcoat, his clean-cut good looks and affable demeanor point more to the conscientious student whose image his movie sets out to challenge than to the daring indie director. One-on-one time with him does little to dispute that. At an apres-ski fern bar done up in Indian baskets and marble chandeliers, Lin matter-of-factly describes arriving in Buena Park from Taiwan at age 9, what it was like being the only Asians in town, and how he worked afternoons and weekends at his family’s fish-and-chip shop. (“I can make coleslaw so fast,” he says with a chopping motion.) “I hated International Day at school. Now, looking back, it actually was kind of cool, because you were able to remove yourself a lot of the time. I think it helped as a filmmaker — at least you have a different perspective.”
“The other thing that really helped,” he continues, “was sports. Basketball. One of the things about basketball is, I hustle. I mean, I‘ll dive on the floor, anything to try and win the game.” It’s true, Lin hustles. Saturday night at the fern bar, the premiere party is raging; a packed schmooze-zoo of party girls and publicists, industry types and the odd ski bum, cram in around a standard-issue snack table, as a DJ spins a cover-the-bases mix of swing, soul and Sade. While the cast drinks and chats up what seems to be every Asian babe at Sundance, Lin politely fields a succession of agents, executives and well-wishers. “Man, I need a glass of water,” he confides with a weak, put-upon smile and roll of the eyes. By the end of the party, he finally gets a chance to cut loose, dancing in the middle of a boogie circle and joining a conga line, but when the festivities shut down at 2 a.m., Lin is ready for some sleep. It‘s not to be: With the admonition that parties are work, Dowd urges the director on to another pair of Sundance soirees.
The next morning, when Lin embarks on a marathon of meetings with distributors and agents that will last until 1 a.m., he will have had a total of 30 minutes’ sleep in the last 24 hours. While the meetings produce no home for the picture (at the close of the festival, distributors are still circling), Lin is cautiously pleased to find he will have his choice among agents interested in representing him. “It‘s exciting,” he says, more deliberately than breathlessly, “but I don’t know what it means, you know?”
In a sense, Lin is already a product of Sundance, having come of age in the era of American independent cinema. He knows the indie-film drill, has learned how to score free equipment, find investors, build a crew. (In 1997, Lin co-directed the feature Shopping for Fangs.) He knows that the festival is there to offer opportunities and that, Cinderella stories aside, it‘s up to him to make the most of them. Through it all, he remains startlingly laid-back, ticking off the entries on his packed agenda with a businesslike lack of agitation. (By the time he returns to L.A., he will have sat — or stood — for some 20 interviews.) He laughs and starts in surprise at the barrage of flashbulbs during a photo shoot for Premiere magazine, then sits back while the cast hams it up, jumping and mugging for the camera. He looks every bit the director, studying the scene intently with a small smile. Lin’s laugh is easy and he is unfailingly sweet, but he has an underlying air of confidence, seriousness and hard work. He knows what he‘s doing and what he wants.
“I’ve been around long enough,” he says, “to know nothing‘s for sure until you have the film in the can. Worst-case scenario, it’s gonna be an amazing trip, we‘re gonna learn.”
As it turns out, Lin will indeed have had an amazing trip. A few days after the premiere of Better Luck Tomorrow, at another screening, a journalist, disturbed by the ending, declares the film “empty, amoral for Asian-Americans and Americans.” At which point the session devolves into a shouting match about, among other things, Newt Gingrich and the corruption of the American male. If this isn’t quite the discourse Lin had hoped his film would inspire, he is nonetheless jazzed by the reaction. He tries to silence the shouters so the journalist can finish his question, but to no avail. The stage manager tries to clear the room for the next screening, but the yelling continues until none other than Roger Ebert puffs up to offer his own last word, defending the filmmakers‘ choices and accusing the journalist of condescension.
The day after, Lin’s placid facade has cracked. He‘s laughing and excited, and it seems as if the reality of the screenings, the meetings, the controversy and the buzz has, at last, truly hit. “Yeah, I’m pumped,” he says, as if he were just realizing it. “I had dry eyes or, seriously, I would have been crying.”