A wealthy Asian woman in a lavish gown is refused a room at a luxury hotel, the white man working behind the front desk sending her away with a racist remark. She steps away for a moment, speaking with her husband. Moments later, she returns to the front desk and informs the man that she and her husband now own the hotel. The soundtrack swells to a crescendo as she gives the front desk man an order before confidently sauntering towards the elevator. The credits roll. 

The camera then zooms out to show protagonist, Ben Tagawa, sitting at a film festival screening, clearly unmoved by the scene that I have just described. The rest of the crowd inside the packed theater erupts into boisterous applause. Later, when the elated director of the film asks Ben, played by Justin H. Min, for his thoughts, he makes a backhanded remark. Ben is disdainful over the film’s overly-glossy production and romanticization of excessive wealth. 

Shortcomings is Randall Park’s 2023 film adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel. By opening with this not-so-subtle parody of Crazy Rich Asians, Shortcomings declares its own meta critique of the state of modern cinema’s representation of Asian-Americans.

Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, Shortcomings portrays all of its characters as imperfect, unglamorous and messy human beings who fall into seemingly endless cycles of mistakes. I found it to be an incredibly clever and refreshing satire on contemporary Asian-American identity, gender, sexuality and relationship dynamics.

Furthermore, Shortcomings is a fantastically quick-witted comedy of errors, injected with enormous heart and passion. The cast’s unwavering empathy for their characters, writer Adrian Tomine’s incisive dialogue and Randall Park’s unbridled enthusiasm as well as his rhythmic directorial style add texture and vibrance to the film.

Set in Berkeley, California, Shortcomings explores the life of Ben and his circle of friends, who are urbanites in their late twenties. 

Alice, played by Sherry Cola, is a Korean-Chinese-American graduate student. Alice is snarky, generally unserious about most matters and quite noncommittal, both in her education and in her relationships with women. Throughout the film, you get the sense that Alice and Ben share an ability to bring out the worst in one another — enabling one another’s immature behaviors. 

Ben’s girlfriend, Miko, played by Ally Maki, is a Japanese-American woman interested in film, particularly in what it means for the Asian-American community. It is through Miko’s career in independent cinema that Shortcomings makes its commentaries on representation. The film, through Ben and Miko’s unharmonious romantic relationship, poses some interesting observations and questions about how gender roles and Eurocentric beauty standards affect both Asian-American men and women. 

The downfall of this relationship becomes a driving force for the plot. Throughout the film, Ben’s attraction to white women is not only a hilarious recurring joke, but it also becomes a key signifier of his own self-loathing and internalized racism. 

Shortcomings delves into Ben’s cycle of misogynistic behavior, emphasizing the way his insecurities impact his relationships. Ben engages in two affairs while Miko is in New York City for an internship, first with Autumn, played by Tavi Gevinson and then with Sasha, played by Debby Ryan. These two characters reveal the way Ben places whiteness, especially white women, on a pedestal — viewing them as prizes who function only to validate his own masculinity and self-worth. 

Although Shortcomings could have gained easy laughs from making these two characters the butt of the joke, both Autumn and Sasha as characters are treated with a lot of respect by Tomine and Park. In fact, all of the women in Ben’s life are wonderfully rich characters who have unique strengths, struggles and journeys of their own. 

As much as Berkeley, with all of its NorCal charm, is a character in its own right, New York City becomes the third act’s main backdrop. Ben hits rock bottom, especially when he flies east to visit Alice, who had run away to the city after getting kicked out of school after a physical altercation. 

This sojourn sees Ben operating at his most frustratingly despicable. His mere presence causes conflict between Alice and her new girlfriend Meredith, portrayed by Sonoya Mizuno. In addition, Ben is enraged after finding out that Miko had lied to him about the internship and had instead been dating Leon, a designer for a luxury clothing line. 

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Leon, who Ben refers to as a ‘rice king,’ responds to the latter’s angry confrontation through comically ridiculous stereotyping. He speaks to Ben in Japanese and even instinctively gets into a ‘kung fu’ stance, not once, but twice. 

It is through these clever satirical gags that Shortcomings touches on themes of microaggressions, orientalist stereotypes and Asian fetishization – simultaneously revealing their absurdity without minimizing their harmful reality. 

By the end of the film, the consequences of Ben’s bad behavior have caught up to him. Shortcomings reveals its optimism and empathy for its unlikable protagonist when Ben finally realizes the error of his ways and his journey towards positive change begins. It was all of Ben’s missteps and mistakes throughout the film which made his small strides towards overcoming his selfishness all the more satisfying. 

Despite how much I thought I despised him, I found that I had been rooting for Ben the whole time.

The last few scenes of the film were especially gratifying and heartwarming. When Ben awakens on his flight back to Berkeley from New York City, he notices the elderly Asian woman seated ahead of him crying. He curiously peeks over and sees that she is watching the exact scene that we saw at the beginning – she is utterly touched by the film that he had absolutely hated. This small scene serves as such a clever metaphor, using Ben’s change of heart about the film by seeing it through another perspective to communicate his improved ability for empathy.

The film’s characters get relatively happy endings — or more appropriately — promising beginnings. 

Alice tells Ben through a voicemail: “Change is hard for assholes like us. But for what it’s worth, I believe in you. I’m always here for you if you need me. And I love you.” While it may be easy to assume that their friendship was based on their mutual acceptance of one another’s unhealthy habits, it proved to be Ben’s most important relationship. Despite his myriad flaws, Alice found a way to see his potential to improve himself and his life.

Right before the credits roll, we watch Ben sit by himself at a park bench, looking out at the city as he wears a hopeful smile. 

It is quite powerful the way Shortcomings withstands the test of time, particularly how the film adaptation holds the same impact that Tomine’s graphic novel had, speaking to a new generation’s experience. 

Ben contends with a range of issues, from his racial identity, masculinity, sexuality, insecurity and self-loathing in ways that felt extremely authentic. I was also impressed by the film’s rich portrayal of its Asian-American female characters, all of whom felt distinctive — with complex thoughts, emotions, opinions and inner lives. 

Through its honest depiction of young adults in the modern age, Shortcomings makes a case for the importance and necessity of supporting low-budget, independent filmmaking. Like the individuals and communities that make up the larger APIDA collective, our stories and experiences are not monolithic. 

Alongside its critique of films like Crazy Rich Asians, Shortcomings reminds us of the inherent value that all of our stories have, even if they only represent a small portion of our communities. Like Ben comes to realize, even if a story makes a single person feel seen, it is worth telling. 

We need Asian-American characters who are deeply flawed, ones who might even make the worst choices possible — characters who are undeniably human. It is through these characters that I feel the most seen and through this type of narrative that I start to realize that perhaps my own story is worth telling, too, even with all of my shortcomings.

Photo by Donald Tong

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