As I walked on to the plane for Park City in the general boarding group, I made that interesting walk from entrance to First Class to coach. It’s almost like a walk of shame and a hilarious division of class as you walk down the aisle of First Class on a plane. Seeing as though I was flying from LAX to Park City for Sundance, it’s almost inevitable that the passengers on this plane are headed there, too which means there may be familiar faces of actors, filmmakers, journalists, publicists, agents, and Hollywood denizens of the sort.
Walking through that golden aisle that is First Class is an anthropological journey as I see people with their heads down buried in their phones acting as if it’s our fault that they have to wait for all of us who couldn’t afford thousand dollar seats. It’s as if they can’t be bothered by us plebes. Nonetheless, I persevere through this tunnel of economy class shame. I scoff. I scowl. I persevere. I hold my head up high and believe in what Brené Brown has told me: I AM ENOUGH.
Then, I look up and see Randall Park and his wife, actor Jae Suh Park smiling at me waving with the friendliest faces. Park’s feature directorial debut Shortcomings is set to premiere at the film festival and at this point, he knows that I already seen it because I was moderating a panel with him as well as actors Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, and Ally Maki the day it premieres.
I temporarily let down my force field of unnecessary “destroy capitalism” aggressiveness that is happening in the depths of my soul so that I can greet them with a smile. We chat for a couple of seconds and I say, “I’ll see you when we offboard!”
OK… I may have been a little overdramatic when it came to my opinions about First Class.
* * * * *
The next day, I sat down with Park to talk about Shortcomings. I’ve interviewed Park multiple times in the past but the first time I had a formal interview with him in 2019 when he was promoting Always Be My Maybe, the comedy he co-wrote with his co-star Ali Wong and Michael Golamco. He was a guest on the now defunct but legendary New Hollywood Podcast.
Of course, he wildly known for the groundbreaking sitcom Fresh Off The Boat but also, Park has been in these Hollywood streets since the early ‘00s working hard for his money. From TV to film, Park’s list of roles and work on IMDb is the length of a CVS receipt.
Reading his resume is impressive and will have lots of people saying, “OMG! I didn’t know he was in that!” On the TV side, Park has appeared in some of the most formative series that many would say formed the “golden age” of TV including The Office New Girl, The Mindy Project, and Community. He also appeared in the Emmy-winning Veep as well as the series revival of Wet Hot American Summer. He recently appeared in Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. and can currently be seen in the NBC series Young Rock and can be heard in the animated Netflix series Human Resources. He also lends his voice to the upcoming animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.
And that’s just TV.
Park has one foot in the DC universe and one in the Marvel Cinematic Univierse, playing Dr. Stephen Shin in the Aquaman franchise as well as Agent Jimmy Woo in WandaVision and Ant-Man and the Wasp. He’s been seen in numerous comedies such as The Interview, Neighbors, Trainwreck, The Disaster Artist among others.
Needless to say, Park has been through it and for him to step behind the camera as a director is an organic next step for him. He directed the series finale of Fresh Off the Boat as well as an episode of Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. Now, Park sits in the directors chair for a feature adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, Shortcomings.
Park’s decision to choose Shortcomings as his first film out of the gate was another organic choice for him. He said that he had always wanted to direct a film that he would write, but then he found out Shortcomings was being optioned.
“I read the book in 2007 when it came out,” Park told me. “The book meant a lot to me, mainly because I just never seen a story like that ever with faces like that.”
And by “that”, he means Asian faces, of course But we’ll get to the identity of it all later.
Over the years, he would check in on the book to see if it had been optioned or not. It wasn’t until Park teamed with Hieu Ho and Michael Golamco to create their comedy-focused production banner Imminent Collision. When they were looking for projects, Park brought Shortcomings back into the conversation and they learned that Roadside Attractions had it and there was a script and they were looking for directors. This was the perfect alignment of the stars. Under the Imminent Collision shingle, they would produce it themselves.
“I’ve been thinking about this thing as a movie since 2007 soI was like, I want to throw my hat in the ring, even though I had never directed feature before,” he said. “I just came up with a very elaborate pitch and pitched it to Roadside Attractions.” They enjoyed pitch and wanted him to pitch it Tomine.
Park was nervous to pitch to the guy who wrote the actual graphic novel and screenplay adaptation. “I pitched to him, and he really took to the way I saw it. Before you knew it, I was attached, and our company was involved.”
Shortcomings is an unexpected comedy that leans into the reality that many Asian Americans have to navigate in this lifetime. Through its own interesting “slice of life” lens, the Berkeley-set story follows a staunch film student with a chip on his shoulder named Ben (Min), his girlfriend Miko (Maki) who wants him to do and be better, as well as Alice (Cola), Ben’s BFF who makes questionable life choices. In other words, everyone is messy… just like we are in real life.
The film tackles issues that nearly everyone faces while navigating early adulthood. As the story unfolds, we learn to not like Ben more and more as he makes choices that are cringeworthy, ignorant and just flat out rude. And it seems that everyone around him just tolerates it, which doesn’t put them in the most warming light.
Ben’s relationship with Miko unravels and he learns the world does not revolve around him, but before he evolves, he has to learn the hard way. Through his journey, he challenges everything that is thrown his way. From the jump, he has strong, biting opinions about the representation of Asians in film when he is forced to sit through a Crazy Rich Asians-esque film at an Asian film festival in Berkeley. He essentially presents the question to the audience: “Do we have to like every Asian film just because it’s Asian?”
With his contrarian personality, he gets into hot water with many people that cross his path. From topics of Asian identity to whiteness to interracial relationships to sexuality to mental health, Ben cannot get passed his own narrow view and has problems reading a room. Our hero is our guide, but he is a difficult person to tolerate because of the topics he brings to the table. “I anticipate conversation, particularly from within in the community and the various communities represented in the film,” Park said. I think that the film will probably be divisive for some, I mean, for numerous reasons…not just because of the things they talk about, but the ending. It’s not a traditional story structure, so people might not jive with it.”
During the Sundance panel at the Sunrise Collective House, I jokingly said, “I am Ben.” To an extent, we all are Ben – but some of us know how to control our inner Ben better than others. There is this anger in him that will never subside. He will poke holes in any of your beliefs and playfully insult you with a cloying smile. He does this because he refuses to change. He is the crab at the bottom of the barrel that is trying to bring everyone down with him.
Park realizes that a lot of people are going to have something to say about all the aforementioned identity plot points that are inevitable “think piece” fuel. “That’s the kind of the stuff people want to talk about and that’s great and fine,” said Park. “But to me, I’m really most interested in the fact that some people just have a hard time changing.”
Shortcomings pushes the conversation of representation forward because it’s a movie that isn’t about Asian representation. It’s about a stubborn man who refuses to change because he thinks he is better than everyone.
Park continued to explain, “Within our production company, we have talked a lot about this movie, the reasons why we’re doing it; why it’s important to us; what it means for the community; what it means for the history of Asian Americans in cinema; what it means for literally actors and the opportunities they get and the opportunities that this movie provides; the kinds of characters they get to play – I mean, we’ve talked about everything, but that’s not saying that we’re going to have all the answers to it, to every question or concern, but it is something that we’ve approached very thoughtfully.”
Shortcomings should be solely framed as a film about an unlikeable film guy who refuses to change, but it can’t escape the fact that Hollywood will see this as an Asian American film – even though the topic of identity isn’t the guiding force. It’s understandable considering Hollywood is still trying to figure out what “representation” is.
“I think that so much of conversations around representation are about figuring out answers to the disparity; figuring out how to represent properly; and figuring out what the community needs,” Park said of the current landscape. “My hope is that this movie fulfills those things, but it also is a look within and in the mirror. It’s not so concerned that the movie, the story or the movement, but it’s concerned within the internal – what’s going on within this.”
He goes on to say that all of this is a part of humanizing because all of us are a little flawed. Shortcomings examines those flaws and the complex humanity of the characters. “To me, it’s progress to be able to examine those things on film as opposed to just creating the idealized representation… which we need too but I think there’s space for both,” Park continued. “I think we’re in such a time where it’s so exciting that all these stories are being told, but it’s like there will be an ebb to some degree. I think that whenever there’s narrative scarcity, there are more kind of demands that representation be perfect.”
Park admitted that he was full of anxiety before his premiere (which was received praise at the fest) but after Shortcomings, he said he really didn’t have anything else lined up – which also makes him nervous.
“The entire experience was very life changing for me in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s part of the reason why I have a clear slate right now because I went through this experience and it made me think, ‘oh gosh, I should be really passionate about things I do from here on out’ and this film was an example of that.”
Park added, “In that regard, it’s going to be hard for me to detach myself from it once it’s out. Even when there is the inevitable criticisms and people who didn’t enjoy it, it’ll be hard for me – but I totally understand at the same time. I think the specificity of the story and these characters and the performances are what I’m excited about most.. but that specificity also makes it less broad appeal because it is, again, going back to the very real thing. These are real people and each and every one of us as humans, are not for everybody. It’s impossible for every single person to like you as much as you want to be liked.”