Quandaries of Asian-American Representation Strike a Nerve in ‘Shortcomings’

Its not-so-subtle reference to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is much more than a mere dig.

Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Justin Min as Ben and Sherry Cola as Alice in 'Shortcomings.' Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Randall Park’s directorial feature debut, “Shortcomings,” begins with a movie-within-a-movie, with Stephanie Hsu and Ronny Chieng as Mrs. and Mr. Wong, who circumvent a receptionist’s slight by purchasing the building where he works. It not-so-subtly references “Crazy Rich Asians,” the big Hollywood break for Mr. Park’s “Fresh Off the Boat” co-star, Constance Wu. Yet this is much more than a mere dig, as it sets up the tension between two kinds of Asian-American experiences and shows the limits of Hollywood’s cursory attempts at representation. 

Attendees at the East Bay Asian-American Film Festival seem to lap the thinly-veiled “Crazy Rich Asians” proxy up, which thoroughly confounds Ben (Justin Min), an aspiring filmmaker who manages the Beverly Arts Cinema and whose girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki) has a hand in organizing the event.

Indeed, many Asian Americans are only peripherally attuned to their own culture and uphold “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Joy Luck Club” as representational wins while remaining blissfully ignorant of more interesting, less-well-known films like “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “Pushing Hands.” “Shortcomings” itself fits squarely with the latter two. How it’s received in the Asian-American community and beyond remains to be seen. 

Miko suddenly announces that she has accepted an internship with the Asian-American Independent Film Institute at New York City and wants a timeout from the relationship. Ben is supportive of her decision and unfazed by the prospect of separation since it affords him the chance to mingle with his new hire, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who dabbles in eccentric spoken-word performances in her spare time. After all, he reputedly has a fondness for white women. 

Ben sometimes poses as the boyfriend of his lesbian confidant, Alice, played by Sherry Cola, so she can appease her religious — i.e. traditional — Korean parents. Even so, her folks apparently disapprove of him because of his Japanese lineage.

The Asian-American community is indeed a house of cards, rife with myriad internal conflicts stemming from far-flung histories and generational grudges. As Alice plots her own exile on the East Coast to be with a new girlfriend, she invites Ben to tag along and check on Miko, who has seemingly grown distant. 

Screenwriter Adrian Tomine adapted the story from his own graphic novel, which very much still hits a nerve 16 years after its initial publication. “Crazy Rich Asians” is only a more current example of the sense of alienation many Asian-Americans feel as activists push for inoffensive representations that do not upset the status quo. Indeed, someone like Ben dispels the “model minority” myth. Those in favor of perpetuating it can’t have that. 

Interracial dating is possibly the most contentious topic among Asian-Americans. Based on Pew Research Center’s findings, Asian Americans are more likely to intermarry than any other race. Yet the subject is often taboo and off-limits within the community. Any clear-eyed introspection on the phenomenon, which is precisely what “Shortcomings” aims at, invariably invites bad-faith attacks and name-calling. 

Spoiler alert: Upon arriving at New York, Ben goes to the Asian-American Independent Film Institute to surprise Miko, only to discover that she doesn’t actually intern there. He and Alice proceed to stalk her and find that she has been living with fashion designer Leon, played by Timothy Simons.

Ben eventually confronts the new couple and disparagingly calls Leon a “rice king” — a derogatory term for someone stricken with “yellow fever.” He’s not wrong, though: Leon speaks Japanese, adorns his place with Orientalist furnishings, and reflexively drops into a karate stance when threatened. Ben may be a hypocrite, but Miko’s activism and community work all seem perfunctory in hindsight. 

An inconspicuous but pertinent point of the film is how Ben, Leon, and Miko are all prisoners of media misrepresentation. Obviously, there’s the dissatisfaction and detachment Ben experiences with Asian-American content. Ben and Leon’s racialized predilections regarding women can also be interpreted that way, especially given the latter’s fetishization of Orientalism. Yet the most telling point has nothing to do with race.  

Miko secretly expects Ben to be like the hero in those movie romances and stop her from leaving for New York. When he fails her test, their relationship is over. Ben’s surprise visit and subsequent stalking are precisely the things a romantic hero would do in a movie, but in reality, could be seen as violating and unwelcome. In due time, Ben will find out whether his attempts to win Miko back make an Asian-American man the hero or the villain of “Shortcomings.” 

The New York Sun

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