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Arts + CultureMoviesRandall Park on 'Shortcomings': 'Reading the graphic novel was...

Randall Park on ‘Shortcomings’: ‘Reading the graphic novel was the most I felt seen’

The actor-turned-director talks about adapting Adrian Tomine's story of an Asian American indie curmudgeon

In 2007, Randall Park was a working actor who had appeared in a few movies and booked guest spots on shows like House and Cold Case but he was still struggling to get jobs. Shopping one afternoon at Giant Robot, the Los Angeles store devoted to Asian toys, clothes, books, and other items, he happened upon Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings about a prickly protagonist brought up short when his girlfriend leaves for New York.

”I wasn’t familiar with Adrian’s work at the time, but something about the cover spoke to me, and I opened the book and I just kept reading it, read it from cover to cover,” Park says during a recent visit to San Francisco in advance of the August 4 opening of the screen adaptation of Tomine’s work, Park’s feature directorial debut. 

“I was really taken aback by this book, I think because the characters in the book were around my age at the time and the things they were talking about, the places they were going to, the diners they were eating at all felt very much like such an authentic reflection of my own life at that time. People talk about representation and feeling seen by a movie or a TV show. This was probably the most I had ever felt seen in a long time, reading this graphic novel.”

The novel stayed with Park as he forged ahead from a struggling to a burgeoning career. Now a busy actor with a thick resume that includes starring in the series Fresh Off the Boat, recurring on Young Rock, co-writing and starring in the film Always Be My Maybe, and becoming part of the MCU universe as Jimmy Woo in three Ant-Man movies and the WandaVision series. Along the way, Park also started directing shorts and for television. Shortcomings remained close to his heart and when he discovered the book had been optioned for film and was seeking a director, he threw his hat into the ring.

“I had a hell of a pitch,” Park laughs. “I’m not one to brag, but that pitch was amazing. I really thought it out. It was very thoughtful and very detailed. I was very passionate and I think that that’s what sold them on me.”

Tomine adapted the screenplay of his book, the story of Ben (Justin H. Min), a Berkeley arthouse manager whose cinema snobbery and penchant for checking out white women is wearing on his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), whose own job is at an Asian American film festival. He also has a best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), who puts up with his nonsense with good humor and patience.

His life is thrown for a loop when Miko announces she’s accepted an internship in New York and then Alice, too, heads east. At loose ends and flailing at his attempts to take advantage of his sudden (however temporary) single status, Ben follows the women to New York. He deploys his countercharm against Miko, while even managing to rile Alice with his defensive unease at being out of his comfort zone.

“Ben’s an ass,” Park says, describing the challenge he faced in casting the character. “He’s very difficult, and if the movie was going to work, we had to find the right actor for Ben… We have this character on the page that’s tough but there is so much more to him. There’s so much more going on underneath, so much sadness and pain. We wanted to find an actor that could convey those very human things about him on top of being charming and funny and a very loyal friend. There’s a lot of good qualities along with the bad. We saw a lot of great actors but the one that felt right was Justin. Ben is still a character that could be challenging to some people but Justin brought a lot of humanity to the role.”

Shortcomings is arriving at a notable moment for Asian American cinema, five years after Crazy Rich Asians heated up the box office, four years after Awkwafina followed up her role in that movie with her self-penned turn in The Farewell, and mere months after Everything Everywhere All at Once won the Oscar for Best Picture and nearly made a clean sweep of the other major award categories. Certainly, these is a long history of Asian American cinema—Park names Wayne Wang’s 1982 San Francisco-set indie drama Chan is Missing and Justin Lin’s 2002 high school crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow among his favorites. But Park wonders if Shortcomings could have been made without the financial success of those more recent films.

“It was hard enough to make right now,” he says. “It was very challenging to make and I think it was made in part because of all of these great achievements. And it was also made a little bit in spite of all of these great achievements because this movie is so different, you know, and void of any kind of traditional trope that you would find in stories about Asian Americans.

“This film is just people hanging out in diners, walking and talking, and talking about their feelings and arguing… It’s very intimate, and I think because of that, it was a challenge to get financed. It was a challenge to find distribution. It’s been a challenge throughout but I think, and thankfully, other people agree that this was a story worth telling.”

SHORTCOMINGS opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theatres. Read Dennis Harvey’s review here.

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