Shortcomings opens with the closing of a movie within a movie- a young Asian-American couple buy a hotel after arguing with its racist white receptionist. It is poetic justice served within a couple of minutes. The meta aspect of it is heightened by the fact that the film is a pastiche of Crazy Rich Asians starring Stephanie Hsu and Ronny Chieng, two of the most known Asian-American actors in recent memory (the latter having starred in Crazy Rich Asians himself). The primarily Asian-American audience at an Asian American film festival in Berkeley is ecstatic and cheering, but not Ben Tagawa (Justin H. Min), who trashes it as a “garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of vindication through wealth and materialism.” With passive aggression masquerading as spiky sarcasm, Ben argues against representation for representation’s sake with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), who has a bleeding political heart on the matter. Their relationship is on the rocks, with Miko finding Ben’s attraction towards “blue-eyed, blonde-haired” white women a tad disturbing. In a bid to take time off from the relationship, Miko jets off to New York for a three-month internship. Ben uses the time to explore his type by indulging in flings with performance artist Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), whom he employs at the arthouse theatre he manages and a woman on rebound from a same-sex relationship (Debby Ryan). Ben’s refuge in all his misadventures is his friend Alice Lee (Sherry Cola), a larger-than-life lesbian who hops from one woman to the next without the burden of carrying any emotional baggage. Wrapped within the neat package of a romantic dramedy, Shortcomings is a light-hearted jibe at attitudes surrounding representation and identity.
The directorial debut of actor Randall Park, Shortcomings is based on the graphic novel of the same name by cartoonist Adrian Tomine, who also wrote the script. Best known for his literary comics and cover art for The New Yorker, Tomine transposes his visual aesthetic onto celluloid with the aid of Park, creating a stripped-down style without the razzmatazz of striking camera angles. The lighting and compositions are standard and simple. The editing, though, comprises of clever cuts which aid in the delivery of jokes. A stylistic choice derived from comic book grammar, which feels rather inconsequential, is the punctuation of the film with chapters akin to comic captions. Having mastered the art of conveying ideas within the space of a speech balloon, Tomine renders sharp dialogues succinctly, and carves the characters and their personalities from their words. He updates his 2007 graphic novel with pop-culture references to suit the current times, ranging from a meta merits-demerits debate on the Spider-Man movies between two theatre workers (one of them played by Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned in the Tom Holland Spider-Man films) to a conversation in a fraught moment about the controversial Cliff Booth-Bruce Lee fight in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
The biggest victory of the film is that it provides a playful platform for expressions of dichotomous viewpoints. It does not resort to black-and-white debates on identity and representation in the manner of a vicious Twitter war. Ben is a bundle of contradictions. His personality screams of pretention—a snob who rejects mainstream Marvel fare in lieu of arthouse classics given the stamp of validity by the Criterion Collection. He rails against the trendy representation of Asian-Americans in media. He holds stereotypical views on white men dating Asian women (calling said men “rice kings”) and yet he pines for white women, with Alice’s girlfriend Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno) terming the latter “a sublimated form of assimilation” on his part. His condescending, holier-than-thou personality makes him an easy target for the audience’s ire. And yet, Justin H Min’s star-making, humanising portrayal creates a poignancy about Ben being left behind in the pursuit of happiness. The villainous fall guy in a typical social media “cancellation” becomes the vulnerable hero of this tale. In the representational scheme of things, more such portrayals of men grappling with their flaws should be earnestly welcomed.
The heart of the film is the friendship between soulmates Ben and Alice. They are united by the act of masking their true selves before the world. Ben is chided constantly about not keeping his blunt views to himself, often barely masking his disdain for things ranging from a “garish romcom” to a terrible performance art show. Alice’s freewheeling nature stems from the repression of her homosexuality before her traditional Korean parents. This causes her to hilariously bring Ben along to pose as her boyfriend at her cousin’s wedding. Min and Sherry Cola share an organic chemistry during several of their coffee shop scenes, the latter bringing an electrifying spunk in her delivery of the already hilarious lines.
Park and Tomine resort to the convenient crutch of a montage, set to emotional music and a hopeful voiceover, to end the film. The result makes Shortcomings feels like a warm hug to the soul, but one cannot help wondering if an ambiguous ending—like in the original graphic novel— without the benefit of a resolution would have been a better choice. The resolution of one’s shortcomings is a lifetime process. It may or may not be a fruitful process, but for it to occur within a ninety-minute runtime makes for an optimistic Hollywood ending— akin to the ending in the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians pastiche. Still, it is gladdening to see a nuanced treatment of race, identity and representation in the mainstream with all their grey complexities, hopefully paving the way for more such cinematic platforms of conversation.
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