Randall Park steps behind the camera for his feature film directorial debut, “Shortcomings,” breathing life into Adrian Tomine’s acclaimed 2007 graphic novel.
“Shortcomings” weaves together the personal journeys of Ben (Justin Min), Miko (Ally Maki) and Alice (Sherry Cola), delving into the complexities of their interpersonal relationships. Its subdued storytelling gives viewers a peek at the lives of rather ordinary characters.
But it’s within these quieter moments that connections to real life become strikingly apparent. By capturing an everyday feel, Park’s film offers a refreshing portrayal of Asian American experiences, moving beyond cliches to resonate with viewers on a more authentic level. Park himself acknowledges the current trend in Asian American storytelling, which is often rich in cultural themes yet woven with all-too-familiar tropes.
“There’s usually a grandma in there somewhere. A lot of delicious food. And of course, the obligatory dumpling-making scene,” he says, playfully referencing a similar scene in his 2019 movie “Always Be My Maybe.” But Park’s latest film strives for a level of realism that reflects even more common experiences, noting, “I’ve made dumplings, like, four times. Ever.”
Join us as Park sits down with NextShark for a Q&A, exploring the intentions behind his latest project, which hits cinemas today.
When we last spoke during your promotion of Netflix’s “Blockbuster,” we discussed the viral trend on TikTok celebrating your vast array of acting roles. Now, you’re making your directorial debut. What was it like to step into the role of the director with such extensive filmography as an actor?
It feels pretty natural for me to have directed this movie. Directing was something that I had been doing for a long time, back in the day for a theater company before I directed shorts, then eventually some TV. So I started thinking about directing a feature, and lo and behold, this project became available. It was the story that I was already so excited about because I had read the graphic novel back in 2007. And it just stuck with me all those years. It felt like it was the right time to tackle a feature. And of all stories, this is definitely one I needed to do.
Were there any unexpected challenges you stumbled upon?
All of the challenges were kind of inherent in independent filmmaking, in terms of not having as big a budget as a studio film. Because of that, there’s very limited time and resources.
We were shooting during COVID, so we had to deal with crew members getting COVID and praying every day that none of our principal cast would get COVID. Thankfully, none of them did. And dealing with weather, thunderstorms, all of those unexpected challenges. But those were things that I was kind of ready for because I was well briefed going in that, you know, this is going to be a lot of work. And it was, but it was also extremely gratifying.
In the opening scene, Ben and Miko watch a film that mirrors “Crazy Rich Asians,” leading into a discussion about how movies are sometimes praised more for their representation than for their storytelling quality. I’m curious to hear your own perspective on this. How does it align with your experiences in the industry?
I think that it’s important to have projects that celebrate community and representation and identify those aspects and put those things at the forefront. But I also think it’s important to have movies like “Shortcomings” that are less about culture and identity. Although it is a little bit about identity, I think it’s important to have all different kinds of stories and represent all different kinds of perspectives. I
feel like the commentary made at the beginning of “Shortcomings” is this: You have a movie similar to “Crazy Rich Asians” and there’s our lead character, Ben, who doesn’t celebrate the movie, whereas his girlfriend Miko does celebrate the movie. And I think that’s very real. It’s such a true reflection of how some people in our community did feel about “Crazy Rich Asians.” And to me, it’s important to have projects that feel real, and less like they have an agenda.
Does Ben’s apprehension toward films that are celebrated mainly for their representation resonate at all with your own views?
No. I think it’s important and I think it’s a part of the reason why we get to make movies like “Shortcomings” – because of the success of those kinds of stories. It’s really all about just having more options and more perspectives represented and more stories to tell.
What I enjoyed about “Shortcomings,” like much of this recent wave of Asian American stories, is that it captures these nuanced experiences that we haven’t been able to see onscreen before. Were there any such details that you were particularly excited to showcase?
What I was most excited to showcase was how complex these characters were and how flawed they all are. Every character in this movie is working on something, and I feel like it just goes back to representing things in a real way. To me, the most exciting thing about this movie was being able to showcase these characters that were not perfect or that are at times uncomfortable for us to experience, and that was the great thrill of telling the story.
When it comes to your own personal connection to these characters, what specifically about Ben’s journey did you see reflected in your own life?
I definitely saw pieces of Ben in me, in terms of his opinions and his moodiness – just his general kind of malaise. There are a lot of things about him that I could identify with during an earlier time in my life, and not just Ben, but also Alice and Miko. There were things about these characters that felt, for better and for worse, very personal to me. And if they weren’t like me, I know people who are exactly like them – I know a “Ben,” I know an “Alice.” So it definitely was exciting to represent that onscreen because all of these characters felt authentic in that way.
As you noted, Ben has significant flaws, making him hard to like at times. Given the problematic history of Asian representation in film, we often see how Asian men are critical of newer portrayals, seeking out idealized or even hyper-masculine images to counterbalance past stereotypical depictions. Did you have any concerns about how audiences — especially those within the Asian American community — might perceive Ben’s character, given his flaws?
It’s definitely something I’ve been mindful of and I’ve thought about. If you look closely, there were certain characters and smaller roles that didn’t necessarily need to be Asian, but I felt we should make that character an Asian male to balance out these portrayals as much as possible.
But with that said, it wasn’t something that I was super worried about because my goal was to show that this is a complex human being. This isn’t just a one-note character. This is somebody who is the way he is for a reason. My hope is that people who see the movie don’t write him off as one thing. But to actually see him as just this flawed human being who is trying his best. And to me, I think it’s so much more important, for me at least, to have portrayals that are more real and human than conveniently one note.
Could you speak more about your process in terms of directing the cast to embody and understand the depth of these characters that you hoped to convey?
My process began with casting, as it was really important that the actors who are portraying them understand that all of this was coming from somewhere. All of the ways they see the world are coming from these experiences that they’ve had, the ways in which they’ve been raised, the places that they’d been – just the real kind of deep understanding of the humanity of these characters was key.
So when we found Justin, Sherry and Ally, it was like they automatically had a real deep understanding of these characters and a real genuine excitement to play these characters. From there, it was really a matter of just long conversations with these actors about their characters, about the ways in which they saw the characters and interpreted the characters’ pitfalls that we wanted to avoid. They all clicked automatically, which was super cool. They did chemistry readings during the audition process and you could just feel the sparks between them all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.