Home Film & TV Shortcomings: Slice-of-Life Portrayals of Asian Americans Who Fall Short at Times

Shortcomings: Slice-of-Life Portrayals of Asian Americans Who Fall Short at Times

by Neil Bui

Shortcomings is an adaptation of a graphic novel from 2004 by Adrian Tomine and serves as Randall Park’s directorial debut. And after almost two decades, the sentiments and themes still resonate for readers of the source material as well as audiences watching the film adaptation.

Justin Min gave us a glimpse into a hard to like, complex yet simple to understand individual in BEEF, and he double downs on that type of portrayal for Asian American males in Shortcomings. While as a whole his character Ben Tanaka might not be the most relatable the entire time (and he shouldn’t be), I was able to identify with him in his moments in vulnerability as he is confronted by his own shortcomings as a boyfriend, a film enthusiast (would be filmmaker if I understand correctly), representative of his ethnic community (which begs the questions does he have to be), and overall as an individual.

Through Ben, there are scenes that stir up thoughts about finding balance between advocating for representation and whether or not representation alone is enough to celebrate works such as a film. The film opens with a screening of a film that feels analogous to Crazy Rich Asians, with Ronny Chieng and Stephanie Hsu playing these leads in this film within a film. Ben is unimpressed to say the least. He remarks on its shallowness and capitalistic themes, but his girlfriend Miko, played by Ally Maki, challenges his hot take by stating it is still a win that may open the door for someone like him to be able to produce and release their own work.

As Miko flies across the country for an internship in New York and asks for a break in their relationship, Ben is left on his own to grow as an individual with the companionship of his best friend Alice, played by Sherry Cola, who is dealing with her own dating struggles as a queer woman in grad school who has not come out to her parents (even having Ben play her pretend boyfriend when meeting up with her parents).

Ben pursues multiple non-Asian women throughout the film, which makes for an interesting discussion about his likely fetishization of white women as an Asian male, as one could chalk this up to as relatable as assimilation, as concerning as self-hatred, more benign as as a result of growing up in the US with the media perpetuating Western beauty standards, or even an unhealthy relationship with pornography.

Through these characters, Shortcomings presents a glimpse into everyday struggles of regular people living their lives who happen to be Asian, with moments that reflect the Asian experience without being too overbearing about it. Although Ben seems to believe he can live his life ignoring the fact that he is Asian, race still plays a part in his everyday experiences and he is consciously acting upon that fact at times, especially when it comes to his interactions with women as well as his views on the white male Asian female (WMAF) dating dynamic. The film doesn’t try to leave audiences with a definite what is right and what is wrong statement, but rather demonstrates the complex feelings one could have when put in a situation as Ben finds himself. So in a way, perhaps the message Shortcomings leaves us with is to be kind and understanding not just to others but to ourselves as we try to grow as people.

Where to watch Shortcomings

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