Some might consider my by-line to be an oxymoron but the protagonist of Randall Park’s debut film, Shortcomings is certainly his own version of a ‘film bro’. He may despise Randall Park’s copyright-free version of Crazy Rich Asians called ‘In Beginnings’, which ends similarly to Crazy Rich Asians and happens to feature Ronny Chieng and Stephanie Hsu.
In the leads are two rising stars in the Asian American actor’s pantheon, Justin Min and Sherry Cola. The latter recently landed on my radar with her great performance as a queer, highly sexual, and crude friend from Sony’s Joy Ride. Also, Justin Min is also someone I’ve anticipated seeing in a lead role like he is here. His work in After Yang and Beef were both great and this seems to be a natural evolution to his more robotic (but reflective) demeanor that has allowed him to play characters with a sense of perfection that slowly reveal more. The same happens in Shortcomings as Min plays Ben, a more-than-a-little pretentious aspiring film director whose day job as a theatre manager and relationship with his girlfriend, Miko, have him stuck in a rut.
That begins to change when a girl named Autumn arrives at his theatre, revealing Ben’s insecurities about himself. As Ben and Autumn start to get to know each other at work, Miko drops a welcoming bombshell on him as she goes to New York to start an internship. Despite his disappointment he uses it as an opportunity to explore his type on a more intimate level as he continues to find girls who interest him. All the while, Alice (Cola) is a queer and lustful grad student who is still trying to hide that from her parents and uses Ben as a surrogate to distract him from her inevitable coming out. The two end up on aligned paths that will teach them different lessons and ultimately reveal that, despite Ben’s less-than-optimal life, a lot of the anger and sadness he experiences comes from his perspective on his life and relationships, forcing him to confront some of his deeper insecurities.
The movie itself is based on a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine–who also wrote the screenplay–and keeps its lens focused on the way that Asian Americans view their own slice of the world. In doing so, Shortcomings explores how much of the perceived problems come with being a more ‘model minority’ that might seep into the life of a man who already deals with a lack of healthy emotional perspective. Like many great Asian American films, it’s able to confront who we are in Western society, while still bringing intriguing conversations about race in dating, cinema, and culture without making harmful generalizations. Shortcomings is able to acknowledge how unique our stories can be and it does so in this film by making Ben a terrible person. (He is. I’ve got to say it.)
It’s his aspiring dreams of making a life above ‘what he has’ that makes him extremely ungrateful and unlikeable as a protagonist. Now, that’s not immediately a problem with the movie. You can have an unlikeable character, if they’re interesting. But Ben is rarely interesting. Shortcomings moves enough to keep us engaged but there’s a really hard balance that Randall Park tries to walk between the realism of people and a guy who isn’t fun to be around. We can understand where some of his charm and ability to connect may come from but really he lacks more charming or interesting attributes. He’ll likely be appealing to the film enthusiasts who see it as he watches his Criterion DVDs, goes to the local Asian American film festival, and manages his indie theatre but he also never looks at why he is unhappy.
There’s good work here from Randall Park to include some more unique–and, almost, indie–lighting with additional colours and lights. There’s some good work here to make some of the images pop. Park plays with visual storytelling well and tries to create some useful visuals that help pinpoint the emotion of the story, while still relying on its dialogue and impressive performances. There are some nice shots that use the ideas of film theory well, helping to communicate the emotions of the characters. However, a lot of it is minimal. As a result, some of the more emotional moments left me cold as I couldn’t see how it related to overall themes or storyline.
Ben doesn’t feel like someone worth making a film about and, therefore, the situations around him never feel worthy of the more cinematic scenes we see. What we are left with is a journey that finds one character discovering who they need to be and the other just getting on that path. It’s an idea of hope that I love to see as we see Ben going through his life-changing journey but Park also pushes the character to the length where he feels genuinely wrong. As a result, it creates a disconnect that could never pull me in emotionally and Alice’s characters can’t really do that either with her lack of humor. A lot of the first half features conversations and scenes that highlight the final point by the end of the movie, which feels like a generalization about a self-absorbed, Asian American man who rejects the culture of putting others before yourself in favour of the community. That’s something that I wished the team focused on more but there are still new Asian American stories to appreciate that are being done at this level. Nothing feels particularly unique though, as this story has been told or at least the plot has.
But don’t worry. He saw how much movies mean to people at the end, even if they just are Crazy Rich Asians.
Shortcomings is available in theatres on August 11th.