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‘Shortcomings’ Reflects On A Different Perception Of Asian American Identity – Review

Shortcomings is based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine.  It is Randall Park’s directorial debut and features Justin H. Min as our lead, Ben Tanaka, Sherry Cola as Alice, Ben’s best friend, and Ally Maki as Ben’s girlfriend Miko.

Ben Tanaka is our main protagonist.  He is a Japanese-American cinephile, a hipster who recoils at anything mainstream.  Not only that, he is cynical towards everyone and everything around him.  From the get-go, he is immediately an unlikeable character, and throughout the film, the audience is left wondering if this guy will have any redemption arc.  He even turns his nose away from any sort of progress made for Asian American representation, alluding it to selling out and inauthentic representation.  Miko, on the other hand, is an Asian American who is proud and excited about the strides that are being made for Asian Americans.

Shortcomings - Film
(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

My biggest struggle with this movie was Ben, who, from the beginning, is unlikeable.  He is negative and cynical.  He shoots down everything his girlfriend says or likes, and he plays the victim when he’s called out on it.  Despite being a Japanese-American, he seemingly has no awareness of the effects several years of anti-Asian history has on him and those around him, that all of that is in the past.  Honestly, the worst part was that I definitely know a few Bens in my life.

Even though Ben was frustrating to watch, I wanted to know if he would ever change while everyone else around him was growing.  Was he going to stay in his old ways, rooted in his beliefs and behaviors that have pushed away everyone around him?  Will he finally realize that being so cynical about Asian American identity (his and those around him) does not help anyone?

(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Honestly, this movie did not feel like it was made to be enjoyed; it was made as a character study of Ben Tanaka.  A major redeeming factor was Cola as Alice.  Without her to balance out the frustrating Ben, our antihero would honestly seem unredeemable.  But with their friendship, it seemed like Ben could actually be a decent human being one day.  Min portrayed that self-loathing and irritating individual very well, and I have enjoyed seeing Min in various roles. Cola has become a recent favorite of mine, especially after Joy Ride.  Maki as Miko is probably the most relatable for me personally, and so her portrayal made it very easy to root for Miko and wish the best for her.

It was refreshing to see someone not thrilled with mainstream Asian American representation.  It really highlighted that Asian Americans are not a monolith and that not every piece of Asian American media is made for every single Asian American.  Seeing Ben contrasted with Alice and Miko really only highlighted how stuck Ben was in his own ways and in his own head, which is certainly the reality for many people.  Sometimes, we get so stuck in our reality that we grow ignorant of how everything else changes.  Through Ben, maybe we can grow self-awareness of our identities and how our behaviors affect those around us.

Despite the problem of Ben, the strength of Shortcomings lies in its approach to show that the Asian American experience is different for every member of the Asian American community.

Rating: 7/10

Shortcomings is now playing in theaters!

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