- Run Time
- 1 hour and 43 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Do you see people wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them.
Berkley area Japanese American Ben & best friend, lesbian Alice, follows his ex-girlfriend Miko to NYC where he learns a lesson or two.
The title of actor-turned director Randall Park’s film refers to its main character Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min). And does he ever have shortcomings! So much so that my mind wandered back to 1966’s Alfie, which catapulted Michael Caine to stardom. Alfie at that time was one of the most self-centered male predators to be seen in film, but who finally arrived at a moment of self-awareness by the end of the film. However, this script, adapted by Adrian Tomine from his 2007 graphic novel, Shortcomings, adds the issue of racial identity to that of a self-centered jerk’s journey toward a (small) measure of maturity.
Ben is a film school dropout managing a run-down art house theater in the San Francisco Bay area. He is living with his girlfriend Miko Hayashi (Ally Maki) in an apartment owned by her father. Mika works for the East Bay Asian American Film Festival, and it is at a screening of one of its films that we first see them. The film they are watching is a spoof of Crazy Rich Asians, and Miko and the audience are delighted at the ending of the film—a Mrs. Wong is refused rental of a hotel penthouse by the snobbish manager, whereupon her husband rises from a lobby chair, makes a phone call, and the pair reapproach the manager to inform him that they have just bought the hotel. As the pair enter the elevator to go up to the penthouse, the film fades to “The End.” Ben churlishly disdains the film, declaring that in the name of diversity it is a sell-out to crass commercialism by satisfying the audience’s wish for acceptance by non-Asians.
It will soon become plain that Miko is not first in his heart. Her suspicion that he prefers blond, white women to Asians is confirmed when she discover the porn on his laptop, all of the women being white blonds. When she decides to accept a three-month internship in New York City, he is disdainful of the city, but fails to make any kind of a plea for her to stay.
Ben’s best friend for hanging out and expressing his feelings is the grad student Alice Kim (Sherry Cola), a flirtatious lesbian—she even flirts with waitresses. Ben himself is soon coming on to the newly hired ticket taker Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who of course, is blond. She is soon replaced in his affections by bi-sexual Sasha (Debby Ryan), who’s just broken off from another woman. Of course, she is blond. Alice knows her and warns him that their relationship will not turn out well. And it doesn’t.
When Alice tells him that she is moving to New York, Ben decides he will go to. By now the theater he has managed has closed due to lack of business. He is anxious to find Mika, especially when the agency where she was supposed to intern has no record of her having been there. The sequence in which he and Alice track Mika down, discover that she has acquired a boyfriend—a white man to Ben’s chagrin—and they stalk the pair around the neighborhood, is very funny. Overhearing the boyfriend Leon (Timothy Simons) speaking Japanese, arouses the disdain as well as jealousy of Ben, making us all the more aware of what a pathetic human being he is. Nor is he any better at accepting that Alice has found a lover in Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), the woman who provides shelter for the pair of West coasters.
There are scenes that can contribute to the viewers’ understanding of minority representation and the insight that Asians, no more than Blacks, are a monolithic block. The first is seen when Ben and Miko argue about the movie they have seen, and Ben sneers at what he regards its cheap commercialism, while Miko hopes it will help Asians break more into the film industry. The second is when Ben agrees to be Alice’s beard at a family wedding, part of her keeping her lesbianism secret from them. He is Japanese American, and she Korean-American. Outside the church Alice introduces Ben to her parents and grandfather The latter, glad to see that she has a boyfriend, overlook his ethnicity. Not so the grandfather, obviously still very aware of the atrocities that Japanese occupiers once committed. He refuses to shake hands and turns away in silence.
The film is no comedy masterpiece, but it does provide many chuckles and a measure of insight into Asian representation. Ben’s small measure of progress toward maturity by the end might not be as great as Alfie’s in the previously mentioned film, but it does leave us with a bit of hope for this cad. And it is good to see that a film based on mostly Asian characters is helmed by one behind as well as in front of the camera.
Another aspect I just thought of is the way in which the Japanese American Ben is depicted in such an unfavorable light—and this when Asian Americans are just beginning to receive their do. This takes me back to the Sixties when African Americans were finally achieving success in garnering starring roles in film, almost single-handedly being led by Sidney Poitier. All of his characters were paragons of virtue—Homer in Lilies of the Field; Alan Newell in The Slender Thread; Dt. Virgil Tibbs in In the Hat of the Night; and Dr. John Prentice, a widower who is engaged to the white daughter of an upper-class liberal couple. And Prentice is a doctor not interested in the high fees his colleagues are able to garner, he is about to go to work for the World Health Organization. Randall Park is not interested in catering to liberal fantasies, but wants to present characters who are fully human, meaning they have flaws. Thanks to the skill of actor Justin H. Min, we are able to see the charm in this unlikable man and stay interested in him in the hope that he can change.
This review will be in the August issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.