Exploring ‘Shortcomings’ with Director Randall Park and Actor Justin H. Min

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classic

Actor, comedian, and writer Randall Park is making his mark as a director with his new indie film, Shortcomings, now out nationwide. Adapted from the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, the story is centered around main character Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min), a film school dropout living in Berkeley whose stagnant life as a movie theater manager is upturned when his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) leaves for New York to explore her own passions. With the support of his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola), Ben slowly begins to re-evaluate his values and the world around him. As the title suggests, Shortcomings is a look into one man’s struggle of self-awareness and receptiveness to different perspectives as he undergoes new experiences that challenge his worldviews. The story has been praised for its honest portrayal of sensitive yet culturally-relevant topics, from masculinity to interracial relationships to Asian representation on the big-screen. As director and producer, Randall Park does not shy away from exploring these themes, which are just as relevant today, in a humorous, true-to-life film adaptation.

Last month, APA chatted with Randall and Justin to hear insights from the director and lead actor themselves. Listen to our interview for their thoughts on the character of Ben, the movie-making process, and the state of AAPI media representation.

The transcription of this interview is edited for clarity.

APA: So diving into it, first off, congrats on your directorial debut, Randall.

Randall Park: Oh, thank you.

APA: It’s pretty exciting to see this come to life. Some of our readers might know that this was adapted from the original graphic novel that came out 15 years ago. So it’s been a while and you’ve been working on this film for a long time, and I’ve heard you talk in other interviews about how when you first read it, it really resonated with you. And I’m curious to know, even after 15 years, what about the story do you think makes it still so relevant to our Asian American community today?

Park: Hmm. I think it’s relevant to our community, but also I think just people in general in the sense that ultimately it’s a story about change and dealing with change, whether or not we have the ability to change as the world around us moves forward, how much do we want to hold on to who we are, and how much we want to hold on to our past. And I think those are very kind of universal questions, and I feel like that’s ultimately what the story is about, in terms of not just Ben, but I think all the main characters in it. They’re all at a crossroads to some degree. And in Ben, we find someone who’s probably the most resistant to growth and change. And he’s confronted with this big question.

APA: I will say it’s very interesting because each of the characters faces challenges of their own, and we see each of those stories develop throughout the film, which is great.

Park: Yeah, one of the things that excited me most about the book when I read it in 2007 was I saw a bit of myself in each of these characters, and I could really identify with them, particularly their flaws. And it kind of forced me into a very, I don’t know, it forced me to reflect on myself. And I love that. I just love that because rarely, especially at the time in 2007, did I get to see characters that were so close to my own life, my real life, my everyday life, but also characters who were so complicated and flawed.

APA: Definitely. That’s a great segue because I wanted to hear Justin’s perspective as well. This is not your first time playing a character named Ben; on [Netflix’s] Umbrella Academy you’re Ben as well. But that is a totally different, like superhero, tentacled kind of character. And this Ben is much more flawed as we’re talking about. [He’s] pessimistic, sometimes cynical and selfish, and the audience might find the character at times unlikeable. So how did you go about embodying this mental state of being this kind of character who is both relatable, but at times, really struggling, right? 

It was really about leaning into those parts of myself that I knew exist there, which are these parts that are often insecure, cynical, or critical and really bringing those things to the surface.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Justin H. Min: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting. Randall and I have had the chance to talk about this movie for a bit now, and a lot of people describe him as unlikable or insufferable. I understand why. But, I don’t know, when I first read the character, I was like, “I get this guy.” He reminds me so much of parts of myself. He reminds me so much of people around me. And that is to say, I think we’re all a bit of Ben, and we’re all a bit of assholes at times. So the people who respond to that negatively, I’m like, well, I mean, let’s take a deeper look inside. [Laughs] So for me, I never found it an insane challenge because in many ways, he’s so relatable. I mean, he’s just a guy who’s unfortunately not very well-versed in communicating the things that he wants to say and communicating his opinions. I think a lot of the things that Ben has to say are valid and have nuggets of truth in them; it’s just sort of the execution that I think is lost a lot of the time. So for me, it was really about leaning into those parts of myself that I knew exist there, which are these parts that are often insecure, cynical, or critical and really bringing those things to the surface. And again, with Randall’s direction and those words, and the incredible cast, everything sort of just came alive in those moments on set.

Park: Going back to the unlikeability or “Ben is toxic” [viewpoint], there are characters in these movies who are running around shooting people and being terrible to women and we’re just so used to that, that we don’t describe those “heroes” as being toxic or unlikeable. Like you just killed a guy, you know? [Laughs] But here we have a very – and it’s a credit to Justin – a very, very real and raw portrayal of a human being. I think that that sometimes hits people in deeper ways because again, it becomes a lot more identifiable. You’re kind of forced not to take them in from a distance, you really have to get into the character to be on that journey.

APA: I think it goes back to what you said about how you can imagine yourself in these characters or people that you know in your everyday life, and I think that’s why you can maybe identify someone as, “oh, that person seems toxic” because I’ve interacted with someone who’s like that. It is a lot closer to home.

Park: Yeah, for sure.

APA: I also wanted to ask about any ways that you changed your adaptation from the paper to the screen? Anything that you strayed away from, maybe a little bit just to fit the medium more?

Park: Hmm. Yeah, there was a lot. Initially when we were in development of the script, one of our main goals was how do we make sure this is a movie and not just a strict replication of the book onto screen. We wanted to have it stand on its own. We wanted fans of the book to definitely enjoy the movie, but we also wanted it to [be the case that] if you weren’t familiar with the book, you’d be into this. I think a lot of the work was done with that in mind. And also modernizing [it] because the book was written in 2007 and there were just so many things that were different in 2007, which is crazy because it doesn’t feel that long ago to me. In the book, there’s just so much slamming down a telephone, and we just don’t do that anymore. Little things like that, the use of social media and also just some attitudes on things, have changed in our culture and just kind of subtly addressing those changes in the rewrite. But I will say a lot of the heart of the original book still applies to today. So in a lot of ways the movie is pretty faithful to the book.

APA: And Justin, did you have any notes, after reading the graphic novel and also reading the script, on things that you might have changed with the character or the way that the character interacted with others?

We just wanted to bring as much truth and humanity to each of these characters.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Min: Randall and I had many conversations before filming, and we just wanted to bring as much truth and humanity to each of these characters. And we didn’t want any of the characters to feel like heroes or villains. And that they would all exist in this gray space, which I think is life. We all contain multitudes. We all contain contradictions. And Ben is a perfect example of a walking, breathing contradiction. You’re rooting for him one moment, and then you’re like, “Why did you say that?” the next. And you know, it’s all of these things. And so it’s just such a joy to sort of dive into that work. When we were on set, we would try different things. We would experiment if we felt like a line or a moment wasn’t working for some reason. Randall was so collaborative, and we would change things and hopefully make it all feel like these are real people having these real conversations.

APA: I think that slice-of-life kind of nature to this film is also something that really resonated with me as well. I actually used to live in Berkeley, I’m calling from the Bay Area right now. I went to school in Berkeley, so it was really cool seeing the BART and recognizing the streets that I used to walk down. The story mostly takes place in both Berkeley and then New York, these two very different cities. Even the characters there [are different], right? There’s kind of the artsy, grungy side of Berkeley, and then you go to New York and you see more of the high-class, sophisticated people of New York. What was it like shooting in these two very different locations and how did these locations influence the storytelling?

Park: I think the locations are really important to the story. In my mind, this movie is ultimately about change. I kind of saw these two cities at different points on that spectrum of change. Berkeley in a lot of ways represents Ben because Ben, he’s from Berkeley. He lives in Berkeley. He will never leave Berkeley. He hates New York. [Berkeley] is a city, like Ben, that’s kind of holding onto itself. And is fighting all the things that Ben hates about New York, whether it be gentrification, the speed of the place, the energy of New York. So for Ben to actually make that move from the Bay to New York, my hope is that it feels like a very significant decision, a very huge decision for him to do that. He must be in a real place of vulnerability for him to actually make that move to a city that just doesn’t fit him, who he is. So a lot of thought was put into the two cities, what they represent in the story and, in particular, what they represent to Ben. 

APA: Any thoughts to add there, Justin?

Min: From my end, I don’t know how pre-planned it was, but it was kind of crazy how the movie reflected our actual shooting schedule in life in many ways because the last scene that we shot in New York was the last scene where Alice and Ben are saying goodbye to each other at the bar. It really felt surreal to be saying goodbye to each other because the next day we were gonna move over to Berkeley, and to get on that plane was literally, for me as Justin and as Ben, going back to Berkeley. The last scene that we shot there was the last scene of the movie, and so I was really able to look out on that view in the same way that Ben was looking out. It mirrored the real life experience of reflecting on my time on this movie, on Ben’s journey and, and seeing sort of the newness of the city for the first time.

I feel like in a lot of ways this movie was just charmed […] there was so much serendipity and magic to the way things unfolded for us.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Park: Yeah, and none of that was planned. With the restrictions of independent film, you just gotta go with what’s most convenient and cost-effective. But I feel like in a lot of ways this movie was just charmed, not only in how the scheduling laid out, but also the actors that we got for the movie. Because we were a low budget movie, we were mostly casting out of New York aside from the leads, and we had so many actors that we loved and wanted, but Sonoya lives in London, Tim Simons lives in LA, we can’t cast them because we can’t afford to fly them out, but then they just happened to be in New York at the time. That’s just one of many examples of how this movie just felt kind of, I don’t know, there was so much serendipity and magic to the way things unfolded for us.

APA: Like the universe telling you this movie has to be made.

Park: [Laughing] Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a way to look at it. 

APA: One other topic I want to touch upon is [how] the movie opens in a meta way. You have a movie inside of a movie, and this particular one is a rom-com referencing Crazy Rich Asians. The conversation that Ben has with Miko after is really reflecting a lot of the conversations and discourse that we saw in real life, people’s response to Crazy Rich Asians, right? So I really liked how you addressed that head on. There’s definitely gray areas, it’s really not a black and white kind of situation. I’m curious to know, in the five years since Crazy Rich Asian has come out, how do you think that AAPI representation in film has progressed, and where do we go from here? What else needs to be improved or what needs to be made?

Park: Gosh.

APA: Big question, I know. [Laughs]

Park: I think just the fact that our movie got made is a testament to the change that’s happening in the industry. I think a lot about Beef, which Justin is in, and I think a lot about how special and unique that show is and how impossible that show would’ve been to make even five years ago. I see parallels with our movie in terms of these complicated characters and this absence of typical tropes that you find in Asian American stories. So I do think the fact that these projects are coming out is really exciting, but I almost hesitate to say that things are amazing now and things are great. We just all have to keep chipping away and [tell] stories that are different and that are just the stories we want to tell, whatever they be, and not necessarily stories that always have to fit into any sort of box. To me, what’s most exciting are the things that are really different.

APA: Are there any stories that you can let us in on that you would be interested in telling? What stories do you think haven’t been told that need to be told?

Park: I don’t know, the “Jenny Li” story. [Laughs] The story of your life, which I’m sure is unique and detailed and has never been told on a big screen. Anything specific to me is exciting. I don’t have any specific ideas at the moment that I can talk about, but definitely the things that are unique and specific and original are to me the most interesting and fun. And to work with this guy, Justin. Anything I do, I just wanna keep working with him because he’s so amazing.

APA: Any response to that Justin? And response to the question as well?

Min: [jokingly] I do not wanna work with Randall ever again.

Randall Park: He’s told me this numerous times. [Laughs]

Min: No, no, anything Randall wants to do, I’d said it’s an immediate yes from me. My dream is to not have these conversations anymore, right? Randall and I, we get asked all the time that question of, “what do you hope for representation?” It’s an absolutely valid question, but I’m hoping that in a few years there’s just so much stuff out there that we’re just talking about what’s exciting and what’s interesting. The conversation revolving around representation is because we [still] feel a lack [of it]. I hope in the near future when there’s just so much out there that it’s not revolving around what things are Asian or Asian American and it’s just about what products are good and, if they happen to have Asian Americans in them, great. If not, there’s other things that will resonate for other people.

APA: Definitely. I hope we’ll all get to that point at some time. My last question will be, what would you say to the people who watch this movie and see themselves and are afraid to confront their own shortcomings. What would you have to say to them?

Min: I would say go to therapy. [Laughs] Invest in therapy. I feel like I had so many Ben tendencies prior to therapy and through a lot of healing and cathartic sessions with my therapist, I’ve been able to really come out of some of those tendencies, which is very, very useful. Surround yourself with a great group of people. People like Alice are the people who really stick by you through thick and thin. I think Ben said it best. We’re meeting Ben at a very particular time in his life. It was almost one of the most truthful things he said in the whole movie when he says, “You’re meeting me at one of the worst possible seasons of my life”. And understanding that people go through those seasons and they become people that they might not want to be, and yet they have the opportunity to grow and change and evolve and experience new seasons of their life where hopefully they’re much more evolved, self-actualized, emotionally mature, healthy people.

It’s hard to be a good person when you’re not being good to yourself, you know?

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Park: I did the commencement speech for UCLA recently and I was telling those kids, let’s try to be kinder people in general, but that can’t really happen until you show kindness and care to yourself and the idea of taking care of yourself and cultivating your joy and your sense of humor and your mental health. It’s hard to be a good person when you’re not being good to yourself, you know? So I think things like therapy and, my hope with the movie, is that it will force self-reflection, just like the book did for me in 2007, and it’ll inspire people to strive to be better to themselves.

APA: Great answers. Love that. I really like how the film ends on such a hopeful note. It’s not like, alright, Ben’s a completely changed person, everything’s for the better. But you see these hints of his mind starting to change about things. He’s starting to be more open to other people and it’s just a great way to end.

Min: Which I think is, again, very true to life. Sometimes we – and again, not that I don’t like these movies because they’re very entertaining – but like, we’ll go from zero to 180 degree difference within a span of two hours in these characters. I’ve yet to see that in real life. [Laughs]

Park: [Laughs] I wish that were the case.

Min: [Echoing Randall] I wish that were the case.

APA: Life would be easier, yeah.

Min: It’s just these small seedlings that continue to get planted and planted and planted. A few of those seedlings are getting planted and then maybe in a few years they’ll start to finally sprout and blossom and create some real change in them. But change is hard, and it’s gradual.

APA: I really enjoyed our conversation today and want to thank you again for taking the time to chat. Really insightful answers. Best of luck on the national rollout in August and hope you all have a wonderful day.



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