MOSF 18.7: “Shortcomings”: The Call Is Coming from Inside the Asian American House (EAAPAAO Part 4)
Memoirs of a Superfan, Volume 18.7: “Shortcomings”: The Call Is Coming from Inside the Asian American House (Everything Asian American Psychology All At Once Part 4)
by Ravi Chandra. Posted on August 5, 2023.
The beauty of Randall Park’s Shortcomings, based on Adrian Tomine’s award-winning graphic novel (which I somehow haven’t read yet), is that it comes at a time when decades of frustration about Asian American representation in media, and Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s more recent call for “narrative plenitude” have yielded actual palpable fruit. Shortcomings allows us to advance representation while also asking, “what do we really want?” This film gives us a splendid mirroring of Asian American insider talk and usually unseen and oppressively denied interiorities, and deserves a watching, and in my case, a rewatching.
Asian American narratives have broken into the pop culture zeitgeist (and awards seasons!) in big ways, on big and small screens. Shortcomings’ opening scene is a send-up, insider joke about Crazy Rich Asians (featuring Ronny Chieng, who was actually in CRA, and EEAAO superstar Stephanie Hsu). True to form, this “let’s just buy the hotel” scene amplifies a very familiar discussion about representation vs. deeper values in film.
We all had an intense argument upon CRA’s release (not enough brown representation, too East Asian for Singapore, too much focus on wealth, capitalism, and consumerism, ideas about what constitutes success, the sweet satisfaction of triumph over racism, whether capitalistic agency is in fact the only triumph possible in a capitalistic system – or whether we should always be advocating for complete transformation of the systems that confine, define, and portray us). I wrote (in Crazy Rich Asians and the Asian American Psyche, parts I and II no less, see references):
“On a meta-level, the criticism ofCrazy Rich Asianscan be seen as a manifestation of collectivistic identity in conflict with itself. The film, like a family member, is being asked to perform in a family-pleasing way.”
Of course, the film, like Rachel Chu, had to be true to herself.
(Spoilers follow. Summary: Shortcomings was well worth my second viewing. Solid direction and cinematography, great characters and cast, great food for thought. Go see it!)
I eagerly watched Shortcomings via the Sundance Festival’s virtual program in January – and hated it. At that point, what stuck with me was “the inevitability of whiteness.” The main character, Ben Togawa (Justin H. Min), is a character study in self-loathing, and thirsts after white women. Miko Hagashi (Ally Maki), his girlfriend, ends up dating a white (or as it turns out, white-passing) man who seems to have an Asian fetish. Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), the biracial Asian girlfriend of Alice (Sherry Cola), ends up being a kind of mouthpiece of defensiveness for whiteness in criticizing Ben. She defends her own mixed identity while also psychically cloning whiteness and privilege.
Timothy Simons as Leon, essentially defending Whiteness but also invoking Quentin Tarantino’s use of Bruce Lee as a punching bag in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Justin H. Min as Ben and Ally Maki as Miko Hagashi look on.
Have we all been captured? Is confinement our fate?
As my good friend and Japanese American psychologist Lisa Nakamura said to me, “Asian American identity formation is complex.”
Shortcomings says the (often) quiet parts out loud. The turd of racism and white supremacy has been left in the punchbowl, and none of these characters (or viewers) has an answer for it. Some of them seem to be drinking the Kool Aid. From the title of another famous graphic novel, maybe it’s “The Best We Could Do.”
Did I say I was triggered the first time I saw the film?
But several women in my network posted basically positive reviews this week. And I am the Superfan of record. So I wondered if I’d missed something. If I might find a way to get along even better with my chosen families. If the triggers had overwhelmed other messages of the film. I also wondered if these women perhaps had been more exposed to men like Ben than I had, and thus liked to see him displayed, played, and roasted. I wondered, also, that maybe if I was so bothered by Ben … maybe I was more like him than I’d like to admit. (Please tell me in the comments below. I’m dying to know.)
I’ll note that on the way to see Shortcomings at the Kabuki in Japantown, I started to rant about it to my friend, who was about to see it for the first time … and then suddenly saw Ben in the mirror … and stopped.
“Let the quiet voice drown out all the noise/even when they’re screaming out/I know that your love is louder/let the battle cry fade away this time…listen to the quiet voice”
Ben is an interesting mix of complications, contradictions, work-in-very-stuck-progress, all around asshole, recognizably snarky and necessary commentary, and committed friend. Perhaps he’s the most likable Jay Caspian Kang I’ll ever see on film. His narrative arc is something like: boy has girl, boy drives girl away, boy tries to get girl back, boy really loses girl, boy bottoms out (but not as bad as in high school), boy finds some happiness anyway. Plus some narrative Quixotic tilts at racism and the complexity of beef in the context of interdependence. (Girl opts for whiteness, all the while vaunting the importance of women’s autonomy and Asian male misogyny.)
Sounds. Familiar. Is it real enough yet?
As I watched the film for the second time, I was keenly aware of binaries, and the way Ben in particular sides with one side of the duality, and rages against the other. Yet he is simultaneously attracted to the other side, wanting either control over it, or its love, in the form of white women. He seems to have no control in his life in general – control of his own emotions, his creative drives, his employees, his girlfriend, the fate of the theater he manages, the possibility of earthquakes. Of course, his interior states, of frustration, rage, resentment, deprivation, desperation, emotional dysregulation, disconnection, and lack of control, might easily be seen as the manifestation of intergenerational trauma: he is 4th generation Japanese American. His family’s incarceration is mentioned, triggering a brief discussion over language and conceptualization of the racist wartime imprisonment. (The preferred terminology has moved from “internment” to incarceration and imprisonment.)
It was nice to see a bit of Ansel Adams’ work on Manzanar included in the de Young exhibit. But sheesh, the curator’s captions! Did not regularly reflect the current accepted language. Also, the images chosen were somewhat bland. Adams’ strident language about Manzanar was not included. Yes, I was a little triggered.
Alice, his queer friend, seems to be most comfortable with fluidity. She seems to be able to get along with everybody (at first to get her needs met, and then to find stable relatedness), but more importantly, seems to see everyone else’s perspective. She is in dialogue with everyone’s subjectivity. (Uhh, she’s comfortable with errybody, until she kicks ’em in the p@$$* that is.)
The personal card of said doctor who might occasionally be a Ben (or a Ken?)
Eng and Han summarize psychoanalytic theory in their book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation:
“Psychic suffering stems in no small part from the refusal to recognize our objects as subjects. In the language of object relations, psychic violence and pain are a result of the infant’s refusal to see the mother as a proper subject with her own agency and will rather than as a partial object to satiate its hunger and greed—that is, as a good and available or bad and unavailable breast.”
In other words, mom is only human, and she’s got her own life, experience and concerns. She’s more than just your friendly neighborhood breast. In other words, it’s not all about you, Ben. (Or Ravi, or any of us.) (I would also say that this psychoanalytic framing is helpful but excessively reductionist and individualistic, pinning psychic suffering primarily on infantile narcissism, rather than also recognizing cultural deprivations and aggressions on individual and collective psyche and soma. Eng and Han work at these other issues, yet in my view, miss some crucial points. Notably, the word “compassion” is not mentioned in the body of the text, and therapeutic love is not mentioned at all, as far as I can tell.)
Sure, we’re not always the apple of everyone’s eyes, but in a world where Whiteness does make it all about itself, and we’re never the apple of the culture’s eye unless we’re its “model minority” or feared and hated “perpetual foreigner” object, what are we to do?
I would like to hope we might propagate a Copernican revolution in relationship, and move from a world where “all men are sinners (particularly all non-white men)” to a universe where “all beings are centers.” We might then move from melancholia and sadness to the joy of co-creation, collaboration, and co-existence with other “centers.”
Ben is told by Sasha (Debby Ryan), a white woman he briefly dates, that despite all his complaints, despite all the forces he wants to blame, the problem is really him. Sasha delivers this blow-to-the-ego/analytic interpretation, much, I think, to the satisfaction of anyone who’s been on the receiving end of Ben’s tirades and insides-turned-out.
The reality is, of course, it’s not just him. There is still the culture of whiteness and wealth that has dismissed and defeated him. However, he’s the only party he has any degree of control over.
Near the film’s end, Ben sprints across New York City before his early flight home to Oakland to ask Miko for one last romantic shot – but he sees her with her white boyfriend, enjoying herself. He smiles, and finally feels his love for her; an appreciation for her subjectivity and ability to fulfill her desires. Shortcomings closes with him smiling again as he looks over a sunny bay towards San Francisco, arguably the most Asian American city in America, and gateway to Asia itself. He’s found connection, as I have, to Asian interiorities through the films of Ozu. And the Ozu-ness of the feeling he experiences at the end is not lost on me.
He has found an interiority in mudita, sympathetic joy, joy in another’s joy, the antidote for envy, resentment, and loss, and maybe this can allow him to build his foundation of self. Narrative and cultural selves are still a work in progress, relational/interpersonal self is all akimbo, but his inner experience of self – his relationship to his humanity, difficult emotions and suffering – has found solace, and perhaps the foundation of peace.
In 2007, I gave these girls in Nepal an origami crane. Mudita, and a moment of shared joy. (Photo by Ravi Chandra, all rights reserved)