Randall Park’s biggest goal with his directorial debut, Shortcomings, is to inspire audiences to reflect on how they might be affected by–and possibly perpetuate–the internalized white gaze.
“My greatest hope for the movie is that people come away like, just wanting to do better and maybe seeing some things in themselves, because every character is flawed,” he said to Shadow and Act News Editor Monique Jones in a recent interview. “I feel like I see a bit of myself in every character and in their flaws I see parts of myself. I hope that people recognize those things in themselves when they see this and maybe make some change like Ben [Justin H. Min] does at the very end.”
Based on Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel of the same name, Shortcomings premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and follows Ben (Min), who is equal parts self-aggrandizing and self-negating as he traverses the complicated realm of attractiveness and desirability in relationships. What makes his journey more difficult is the internalized white gaze he has projected onto himself and others around him, leading him to fetishize whiteness even while being in a relationship with his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki). His defensiveness also nearly torpedoes his friend Alice’s (Sherry Cola) relationship with her girlfriend, Meredith (Sonya Mizuno). It’s only through a painful realization that Ben starts waking up to his internal flaws.
Park said that he has always loved the graphic novel because of how it portrayed everyday Asian-American life.
“I read the graphic novel back in 2007 when it came out, and I remember immediately being struck by it,” he said. “It was probably the first time I saw in any kind of media such an honest reflection of my own everyday light, you know, in terms of just like seeing Asian American characters just kind of hanging out in diners and restaurants and in apartment buildings and just going through kind of day-to-day life, it just felt like very real and authentic to me and I was really just taken by it.”
“15 years later, I started a production company and one of the first things I asked my partners in the production company was, ‘What’s going on with Shortcomings?’ Because that book was so meaningful to me and I was surprised that nothing had been done with it in terms of TV or film,” he continued. And [it] turned out that there was a script that was also written by Adrian Tomine, who wrote the graphic novel, and that it had been optioned and they were meeting with directors and I was like, ‘I gotta throw my hat in the ring.’ I’ve only directed a few episodes of TV and I’ve directed some shorts and web stuff, but I had never done a feature. I was just so passionate about the material that I felt like it was worth a shot. And somehow I ended up the director.”
“That character [Ben] resonated with me because it felt so real to me…I’ve known so many people in the community who are like him and I’ve been familiar with people who are like him in terms of his own kind of racial identity and how he deals with that. But also in just his disposition….the kind of anger and really a deep depression, you know?” he said. “I feel like I really know these people. And I’ve been to a degree…that person and also the other characters. I saw myself in every character, so for me, it felt cathartic in a way to direct a film featuring these very complicated characters and telling a side of the Asian American experience that we just don’t see in media, but it is very real and… I don’t even think [this story is] specific to any time period. I mean, from talking to younger people who’ve seen the movie, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re talking about the same things today.’ So it’s felt very exciting in that way to tell these stories.”
Despite Ben being an adult in the film, he still goes through a coming-of-age arc when it comes to beginning the process of growing out of his immaturity surrounding his self-image and the value he placed on the fantasy of having a white girlfriend. While some people also grow out of that immaturity, Park said that isn’t always the case for some people, but regardless, the root of that ideal stems in part from wanting to attain success in American society.
“Not everyone grows out of that, that’s for sure. But I do think that it is a common thing to see that, at least in my generation, because, I mean, for various reasons–I’m sure it’s way more complicated than how I see it–but I think one factor is you grow up in the Asian American kind of immigrant experience, you grow up with parents who have come to this country and they sacrificed a lot and they work really hard and the whole point is to give their kids opportunity and to make sure their kids are ‘successful,’ whatever that means,” he said. “And…a lot of people say it’s work ethic or whatever, but I think that these values are good values, but there’s a flip side to it and I think that for a lot of people, they equate success with whiteness and the validation of white people. And I think that in choosing one’s mate, that could be a factor…it’s very complicated.”
“But I think that when it comes to attractiveness, and you grow up in this country, you’re just fed images, you know? You’re just fed images that really kind of tell you, whether subliminally or just outright, that this is the ideal [image]. This is the benchmark of beauty. And that stuff just kind of works on you, you know? It subconsciously kind of shapes your worldview…especially when you’re young,” he continued. “I think that as people get older and more in the world, hopefully when they meet others…they recognize that these people who may not fit in that ‘ideal’ are just as interesting if not more interesting. And I think a lot of people kind of evolve. But I do also think that, again, it’s very complicated and I think this movie doesn’t really take a strong stance on any of this. It just kind of shows how complicated it all is.”
Part of what contributes to the subliminal messaging in American pop culture is the lack of stories about other life experiences, particularly racial experiences. Park said that the decision was made to include a riff on Crazy Rich Asians in an effort to modernize the original Shortcomings story while making a commentary on how little diversity there was in terms of the types of Asian American stories being told in the mainstream.
“For me, it’s really more a commentary on narrative scarcity and the lack of different kinds of stories from a community. I mean, every community kind of deals with this to some degree where it’s like the industry will only green light certain types of stories because they serve their idea of what’s authentic or important,” he said. “But the irony is because of the success of something–and Miko says this in the movie–because of the success of a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, we’re able to get more granular and specific with something like this movie or Everything Everywhere All At Once, [where you] get weirder and different. We’re a part of that lineage, even though one movie can’t represent everybody in a community. It just can’t. And I think that was kind of the point of that opening sequence.”
Ben’s critique of a Crazy Rich Asians-esque film within Shortcomings also reflected a lot of chatter happening within the Asian-American community regarding the impact of Crazy Rich Asians as a whole. As one of the biggest films of its kind, it quickly became a lightning rod for opinions on both sides of the conversation.
“What’s a conversation that we hear in the community a lot? And this conversation about Crazy Rich Asians, which to this day is, I think, regarded as the most important Asian American film–I’m not saying it isn’t important, I think it’s very important and very pivotal in terms of everything that came after it, but [it was] also very divisive in terms of people’s opinions on it and people’s feelings about it as a movie and also as a representation of the community,” said Park. “So we wanted to capture that and we felt like Ben is the perfect character to have strong opinions on a pop culture phenomenon like Crazy Rich Asians.”
Along with Mizuno who starred in Crazy Rich Asians, the film also featured fellow Crazy Rich Asians and The Daily Show star Ronny Chieng, who played a cameo role with Everything Everywhere All At Once star Stephanie Hsu as actors in the film Ben despises. Park, who said that both Chieng and Mizuno are “good Crazy Rich Asians representation” in the film, added that Chieng was brought on thanks to their friendship.
“He’s a friend, so I just reached out and he understood what we were doing and ultimately it wasn’t like we were taking shots at Crazy Rich Asians. It was really more of a commentary on Ben and his perspective using that movie. I think he saw that and he just came through because he’s a friend and he really liked the script,” he said. “He felt like this was something different as a project as a whole and felt like he wanted to be a part of it.”
The fact that Shortcomings can reference Crazy Rich Asians speaks to what many hope is the beginning of a new renaissance for Asian American filmmaking. While moviegoers hope that this leads to more stories that can swing for the fences and focus on more specific stories within the broader Asian American experience, Park pointed out that there already have been films that have done just this. With that said, he also pointed out how his film takes part in the larger conversation about diversifying storytelling.
“There have been movies that have gotten into the minutiae of the Asian American experience, great movies. I think of this movie called Chan is Missing from way back, and that was a very early, very specific glimpse into San Francisco Chinatown. So it has been done, but…I see it as all connected, personally. I really do,” he said. “I definitely feel like even though they were made around the same time, there is a debt owed to every movie that came before us, and not just Asian American [movies] but every traditionally underrepresented group telling a unique story, I feel will lead to more stories that are different from that community and other communities as well. I definitely feel like there is some respect to be paid to the ones that came before.”
Shortcomings also makes an undercover commentary on how Asian men have been trained to see themselves thanks to pop culture’s overt focus on Western ideals. If you’ve been on the internet at any time during the last five or so years, you’ve probably seen online conversations about Asian male beauty, either in Twitter threads or on sites like BuzzFeed. The hand-wringing over Asian male hotness stems from real issues regarding representation and stereotyping, with Asian men being showcased as effeminate or hopelessly nerdy (i.e. Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles).
But the conversation has turned away from analyzing and dismantling the root cause (white supremacy) and now mostly just centers around replicating Western beauty ideals in attempts to rehash the question or, at worst, using thirst trap pictures as a form of surface-level protest. And also, to ask if someone can be hot because of or in spite of their race is, at its core, silly–anyone can be attractive, regardless of race. Park said that he tries to stay away from that question about hotness because he finds it “a very superficial question and a ridiculous question” for the internet to ask.
“I try not to think of it too much because it almost feels like one of those things that you almost don’t want to validate the question by putting energy into it, you know? [I’m] like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna go about my life and not think about it too much.’ But yeah, I don’t know. I just feel like, to me, it’s like beauty is everywhere.” he said. “Yeah, you could show photos of people and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re hot,’ therefore that makes them hot. But to me, it’s so much more interesting and hotter to learn about a person and to identify with a person on a deep level and the attractiveness of that person becomes so much more palpable. And I feel like that happens when you tell great stories. That’s what happens when you tell stories of complex people regardless of what they look like. And that happens in one’s everyday life, just being out and about and talking to people and being genuine and authentic as possible.”
“I feel like that’s the only power I have when it comes to that question, [to] just [try] to be as un-neurotic as possible in everyday life, and that’s a struggle for me,” he continued. “But also, just putting my energy towards telling these stories and not to think of any sort of agenda of, ‘Oh, I we gotta have [someone attractive].’ Justin Min is a hottie, there’s no doubt about that. But if anything, the reason why we cast him [were] the things that were so much deeper than that. He was so good-looking that it was almost a problem for me. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if Ben should be this good-looking.’ But when he’d act, he almost became less good-looking to me in a way that was great because he became more complicated, more flawed, more damaged. And to me, that was just much more interesting.”
It’s Ben’s damage that does make him more intriguing for the audience, especially for those who view the film and see themselves in Ben. Ben’s particular brand of depression and self-despising hits on a level that Park called Ben’s “defense mechanism.”
“There is this kind of denial of self and…it’s very complicated with him. But I do think there is an element just self-negation constantly. For me, it just felt really real and what was important to me…I didn’t want to belabor it, but I did want to put in clues as to why he might be this way, why he might feel this way about community stuff and identity stuff,” he said. “There’s a line where he talks about his high school years and it was like being in a Mormon modeling agency. And I think later in the script, we just threw in a little detail–he’s about to go to New York and he tells Alice he wants to go to New York and Alice says, ‘Oh is this your rock bottom?’ And he says, ‘No, high school was my rock bottom.’ So you get the sense that something happened during those years where he felt like a complete outsider and his response to it, which is a very natural response, [is] to try to gain some sort of acceptance. In other words, his kind of self-hate was a defense mechanism. I think it often is for a lot of us. It’s rooted in painful experiences.”
“[M]y hope…is that people do kind of recognize that a lot of his tendencies come from a very painful, vulnerable place and that it’s worth considering seeing things differently,” he continued. “I think at the very end of the movie…when he’s sitting in the airplane and he sees the old lady watching the movie that he was disparaging earlier, he still hates the movie, but at least he maybe has an idea that this is very important to some people and [he] shouldn’t ruin it for them. And hopefully, that message resonates with some people who may be dealing with their own issues in regards to self-hate or the Ben kind of stuff.”