In 2023, it often feels like we can’t watch a film or a show without asking what service each character does for representation. When people of marginalized races and genders get their moment on the big screen, we have high expectations for them: We expect them to be cool, kind, and relatable while simultaneously breaking all the stereotypes associated with their identity. When those characters are obnoxious or irritating, we are bothered—a brand of dissatisfaction that I hear voiced frequently: “Why does Devi from Never Have I Ever have to be so annoying and white-girl coded?” or “Is And Just Like That’s Che Diaz doing a disservice to the queer community?”
On the other hand, isn’t the point of representation to humanize people of all kinds, break down stereotypes, and make space for individuality within communities? The new film Shortcomings—actor Randall Park’s directorial debut—rejects the compulsion toward quote-unquote good representation by portraying Asian American protagonists who are imperfect, messy, and sometimes hard to root for. It’s a rom-com that can feel all too real, creating space for nuance in the tricky gendered complexities of fetishism and emasculation within Asian communities.
Shortcomings was adapted from the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, and it closely aligns with that text. It follows Ben (Justin H. Min), a movie-theater manager in Berkeley, California, after his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), moves to New York for a career opportunity and asks for a break from their relationship. Ben, a character who toggles swiftly between charming and insecure asshole, is hardly given a choice—Miko is going—and he copes with the separation with a distinct lack of grace.
The film opens with Ben and Miko, both of whom are Japanese American, at an Asian film festival that Miko helped organize. The fictional movie they’re seeing stars Stephanie Hsu and Ronnie Chieng and closely resembles the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. Afterward, one of the other organizers asks Ben what he thought of it, and without explicitly dissing the film, Ben makes it clear that he isn’t a fan. In the first of many scenes of the pair arguing, Miko makes the case that Asians have waited for a long time to see themselves represented in media. Ben snaps back that the movie is a “garish, mainstream rom-com that glorifies a capitalistic fantasy of vindication through wealth and materialism.”