Asians in Hollywood has recently seen a boom in recent years that have seen their presence go from zero to hero, from the 2018 release of Crazy Rich Asians to three Asian cast members being nominated for their respective roles in Everything Everywhere All at Once in the 2022-2023 Academy Awards. Fresh Off The Boat star Randall Park is the latest talent to contribute to this surge by adapting an acclaimed graphic novel by Adrian Tomine as his feature directorial debut.
Shortcomings stars an ensemble cast, including Justin H, Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki and Jacob Batalon. The film follows Ben (Min), a Japanese cinema manager who is in a long-term relationship with Miko (Maki). He, however, seems to be stuck in a rut and his wandering eye for blonde Caucasian girls slowly disrupts his relationship, which quickly deteriorates when Miko leaves for an internship in New York. With only his best friend, lesbian Alice (Cola), for company, Ben ventures into the world of dating, only to realise that it falls short of expectations.
Shortcomings unexpectedly opens with a glossy parody of Crazy Rich Asians (which has some notable cameos), and the immediate reception from an overexcited attendee: “I know it’s glossy…but it’s us!” evokes thunderous applause. It’s a notable response but one that sets the tone for the film. Within the first act, Park and screenwriter Tomine establish – and address – certain tropes that will resonate with Asian audiences. Chinese-American Alice is studying for a PhD and is hiding her sexuality from her parents, forcing Ben to be her pretend (Korean, rather than Japanese) boyfriend. It is also very meta for the need to see more Asians on screen as Ben and Miko talk about on-screen representation – even Batalon’s cinema assistant Gene doesn’t escape the wisecracks as his character has a fondness for certain Spider-Man films. In a way, it feels like the film is getting its key discussion points out of the way so they will not interfere with the remainder of the film – except they ultimately interfere with Ben’s character development.
Although he has been with Miko for six years and the two live together, he continues to eye up blonde White girls whenever he is out and eventually goes out with a number of them, including his co-worker Autumn (Tavi Gevinson). However, he is quick to judge others when Caucasian men are out with Asian girls, thinking that it is inappropriate, or worse, when people think they are judging him. This double standard paints an unflattering and condescending portrait on Shortcomings‘ protagonist, especially when this comes across as an old-fashioned albeit taboo perspective on dating or specifically, mixed-race relationships.
There is also a stubbornness to his character that exacerbates Ben’s lack of appeal. He is working at a cinema after failing to become a filmmaker, and most of his free time is spent with Alice and her untethered approach to relationships. But when Alice feels she needs to make her mark elsewhere, Ben takes this somewhat selfishly so there is little empathy on his part. It does make audiences wonder where is this character going – literally – and, strangely, this works in the film’s favour as his journey of self-discovery forces him to directly confront his attitude.
This is mostly due to Min’s complex performance. A far cry from his eponymous role in After Yang, he subtly conveys frustration and resignation while Ben struggles to find his way. While Cola and Batalon bring touches of comedy throughout the film, Maki brings a surprisingly grounded character to the ensemble as Miko holds a mirror up to Ben when he needs it the most, offering a moment of unexpected contemplation during the film’s most intense scene.
On paper, Park has chosen a great project to make into his first feature film by bringing simple, refined direction and enabling his cast to naturally convey awkwardness, anger and affection in front of the camera. He also enables Tomine’s words to naturally flow from the page to the screen, so audiences can follow the characters and their messy love lives without over-complications or unnecessary tropes.
Combining a notable social commentary with wonderful comedic moments, Shortcomings is a delight and a brilliantly executed debut from Park.
Director: Randall Park, Adrian Tomine (screenwriter)
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Jacob Batalon, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson
Runtime: 92 minutes