Shortcomings (2023) dir. Randall Park // BOSTON HASSLE
Before its box-office domination, the colossal impact of Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians was rightfully predicted by prominent news outlets and entertainment pieces. Indeed, representation matters and can be profitable. A Medium article, written at the height of the pandemic’s hate crimes designed to look into how the term “Asian” populates search engines, found that CRA was still the most popular related topic related to the word in the last five years (unsurprisingly, “Asian flu” took the top spot when the search was narrowed to the previous twelve months). Since the film’s release in 2018, stories centering the Asian-American experience has branched into different styles and tones, which is how a Chinese immigrant family in a multiverse can reportedly become the most decorated films of all time, how Ali Wong’s road rage isn’t reduced to a comical stereotype, and how an Oscar-nominated Stephanie Hsu having a sex scene with a basketball should be her comical stereotype.
As easy and wonderful it is to see representation flourishing, the glass-is-half-empty cynic will pull back the filial piety held for CRA and criticize what the film lacks or supports. This is how we’re introduced to Ben (Justin H. Min) in Randall Park’s directorial debut Shortcomings. After watching a fictional prequel to CRA with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) at a local Asian American film festival in the Bay Area, Ben rants about the wrong messages that the film sends — the value of capitalism, the choice in promoting a selective class of wealthy people to the front of the story, some anti rom-com sentiment between the lines. Unmoored by his attitude, Miko tells him that the film is able to kick the gates open for the weirdo Asians to get their work out there.
We’ll find that Ben, who is an aspiring filmmaker, is wrong most of the time on screen. In fact, Ben will be one of the most insufferable personalities this year — somehow both emotionally inept and manipulative, wildly opinionated and angry but without ambition or an internal compass — to the point that Shortcomings can be a bit of a hard sell. But as the saying goes, representation matters. And for the first time in a long while, instead of actively trying to fit into the characters’ shoes, I found a passive resonation with this kind of character: the self-hating Asian. Marketing would most likely brand it as deep insecurity, but for minorities growing up in explicit and implicit white-assimilation, racial denial is an identifiable part of the journey (or, as the memes go, a canon event that cannot be interfered). We could be so lucky to get to self-awareness at an early stage in life (“How we do personally promote the idealization of whiteness within ourselves?”) but it is an individualized pace. For Ben, the question might have crossed his mind, but the film’s question instead emphasizes the central issue, which is that Ben is an asshole scared of change.
Race is brought up a lot, but Ben cherry-picks its applicability in conversations and arguments. He dismisses his Japanese heritage if it downplays his achievements (“I fucking earned it,” he tells his friend Alice, played by Sherry Cola, when he describes himself as an outcast at the “Mormon modeling agency” high school), but it is suggested that he thinks about it all the time. When he is walking with a white girl at a flea market and believes that another man was ogling them, he claims that the stranger was judging their relationship by race (as Ben is sharing this, you can see the man in the background absentmindedly looking around the area like a normal shopper would). He thinks Miko’s increasing involvement with Asian media representation is on par for trendy politics, Asian men in AMWF relationships deserve a high-five — so on and so forth.
However, it would be misleading to say that Shortcomings is about identity crisis. If you ask Randall Park, he’ll tell you that the movie is about eating sandwiches in different diners. Genre-wise, Shortcomings is a slice-of-life featuring a third-/fourth-generation adult of Japanese descent who is at a dead end with his relationship and work but spends most of his time complaining and, much to the chagrin and open mockery of Miko and Alice, gawking at white women in public and in his own private viewings (aside from the obvious, he rejects Miko’s invitation to bed so that he can “catch up” on a couple of DVDs; an eagle-eyed viewer will see a copy of Frances Ha queued up). While the film is adapted from Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel, there isn’t a specified time period. Ben manages a financially deteriorating movie theater, but it doesn’t proclaim itself as post-pandemic ruins (one might peep an Emily the Criminal poster in the background to roughly indicate the year, but the film seems to forgo the pandemic to avoid distraction to the original source).
The movie goes into motion when Miko leaves for New York on a film internship, where Ben then takes their vague relationship “break” as a chance to pursue Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), the new employee at the theater. His primal leaping at the chance to hook up with the white-girl employee that works under him is cause for disgust, and Shortcomings doesn’t quite relent to Ben. But the thing about Shortcomings is that even though everyone knows and treats him like a loser (Miko has a pivotal conversation with Ben towards the end of the movie that makes me realize that Ally Maki’s ability to draw sympathy for her character and show pity towards Ben at the same time is a skill to behold), I can’t help but feel that Ben is my kind of loser.
It would be nigh impossible to confront all of Ben’s shortcomings in this ninety-minute film, and, thankfully, its core is more about one’s fumbles than piling a bunch of societal lessons. People might find it discouraging that no one calls Ben out on being a MRAzn or that the discrepancies in attitude between WMAF and AMWF aren’t discussed further. But when we talk about representation, it’s important that it doesn’t feel empty. Ben’s line of thinking closely resembles the toxic, conflicting ways Asian men can be conditioned to think in Westernized society, but when Ben is called out on it, his responses speak less of his oblivion and more to the fact that he actually sucks. In that way, I prefer a Ben over stock characters that hit the right notes of mistakes and education without a realistic reflection on the rest of the world. And while Ben does sucks (though maybe a little less by the end), I’d also love to hear his (probably awful) opinion about Everything Everywhere.
dir. Randall Park
Now playing @ Kendall Square Cinema