WARNING: Heavily Spoilers Past This Point
“Shortcomings” is a movie about an ass****. As the film opens, we’re introduced to the main character, Ben Tanaka, doing what he does best: hating. In the IDGAF (I don’t give a f***) wars, Ben fought valiantly on the side of giving a f***. But he didn’t just give a f***, he gave all the f***s. In the opening scene of the film, Ben is at a screening for a film that’s definitely not “Crazy Rich Asians.” His girlfriend, Miko Hayashi, has organized this through collaboration with a local Asian-American activist group. The goal was to bring the community together to watch a spectacle of representation on the big screen. A lofty goal, yet still, Ben hates on.
Upon the couple’s return to their apartment, Ben is running his mouth, deriding the film as glorifying toxic capitalism. A critique which, having watched the actual “Crazy Rich Asians,” is kind of fair. Miko tries to get him to calm down, to just enjoy the fact that the screening brought the community together, to just drop it. But Ben will not drop it.
Ben’s hater behavior doesn’t stop at just the movie. He hates his job. He hates his employees at the movie theater that he owns. He even directs his hater energy towards his girlfriend. At breakfast with his best friend, Alice Kim, Ben complains about how political Miko has been lately. How frustrated he is with the person she’s becoming.
Alice might be the only person that he doesn’t direct his hater energy towards. She is a queer grad student who has found her way into the pants of every queer woman in the city. She’s also a big hater. They get along great.
Ben and Miko argue a lot. His incessant need to critique everything grates on Miko, and his rejection of her attempts to nurture intimacy and connection between them hurts her. Their tension boils over when Miko finds “Asian Male-White Female” porn on his computer. She finds it offensive that he’s specifically seeking out women who don’t look like her to jack off to. He tells her that it’s a fantasy, that when people watch porn, they don’t want to find what their life is like. They want something different. His response tells her everything she needs to know.
In the days following, Miko is completely checked out, ignoring him, until she tells him that she’s decided to go forward with an internship in New York City. Ben decries it as gauche, but she goes through with it. All alone in the apartment, left to his own devices, Ben decides to use his newfound freedom to play the field. As his best friend Alice says, “While the cat’s away, the mouse will play… with himself probably.”
Once in New York, Miko and Ben’s relationship strains to a point of breakage. Every time they try to speak, they get into an argument, and, eventually, she decides that it’s best that they not talk for a while. Our boy Ben is more alone than ever, and it’s then that Alice decides to take him to a party. More specifically, a queer party chock full of lesbians. Ben flounders at socializing, but when he’s sitting on the front steps, waiting for Alice to decide it’s time to leave, he meets a bisexual girl named Sasha.
Sasha is white. The two of them start talking, and they hit it off. Alice disapproves, the biphobia coming out of her strong as she calls Sasha a fence-sitter. But for once, Ben doesn’t entertain Alice’s hater energy. Soon enough, he and Sasha are going on regular dates. Sure, he and Miko aren’t technically broken up, but he tells her that they are, and she believes him.
Alice, on the other hand, isn’t having such a good time. At the party, the roommate of a girl she ghosted confronts her, and in the heat of the confrontation, Alice kicks her in the cunt. A couple days later she finds that she’s been temporarily suspended from her studies for assaulting another student. So, just like Miko, she books it to New York for a weekend to clear her head. But after a while passes, Ben finds out that Alice is staying in the big apple. Alice, the queen of ghosting girls, has fallen head over heels for a mixed race Asian woman named Meredith. Ben isn’t happy about it.
Ben should be upset. Because yeah, both his best friend and his girlfriend have booked it halfway across the country. But he’s dating a white girl now. He’s dating Sasha. And he cannot get enough of it. When they first sleep together he relishes in the moment, as this is his first time sleeping with a white woman. He is living his American assimilationist fantasy, to a degree that seems to make Sasha uncomfortable. At a date at the flea market, he comments that other Asian men are looking at them, jealous of him for scoring it with a woman of her complexion. She tries to laugh it off but she clearly doesn’t like his boner about her race. Then, she dumps him. Ben is frustrated and, in a gross display of misogyny, he regurgitates the same harmful rhetoric that Alice was spewing.
He calls her a fence-sitter, saying he can’t believe that she would pull something like this, that she should know when she’s broken up with someone. His hypocrisy is clear. However, Sasha is done with his bulls***. “I know you’re gonna wanna blame this on society, or on your race, or whatever. But this really is just about you.”
Ben is capital-D dumped and, to make the blow worse, he has to close down his movie theater due to its lack of business. At his rock bottom, he does what he’s insulted everyone else in his life for doing. He books a flight to New York.
Upon his arrival to the greatest city in the world, he finds Alice and Meredith happy and in love. They complement each other well, and Alice’s veneer of nihilism has been replaced by a genuine sense of joy. Strange as it is to see, happy looks good on her, and this new, more respectful version of Alice is thriving. However, when Ben arrives on the scene, he brings out the raunchier, cruder side of Alice, a side that Meredith doesn’t like very much.
He also attempts to go see Miko. He buys a bouquet of flowers and heads to the building where she was supposed to be working at her internship, but when he gets there, he finds that there’s no record of her ever being an intern there. She had lied to him. Doing some digging only makes things worse. Ben finds that she is now a model, the muse of a designer named Leon, and his lover.
Ben is incensed. He decries her as dating a rice king, that he only wants to be with her because he’s a white man with a fetish for little Asian women. This rhetoric is one that Meredith speaks up against. She tells him it’s a slippery slope to assign moral connotations to people’s relationships. After all, if Leon’s relationship with Miko is a show of western domination and fetishization of Asian women, what was Ben’s relationship with Sasha? The hypocrite that Ben is, he tells her that she’s wrong. That this is specifically about rice kings, and that she just doesn’t want to think about her white dad f***ing her Asian mom. Alice doesn’t defend her, and the rift between them grows wider.
Ben comes to Miko’s new apartment and confronts her. He yells at her for cheating on him, that he didn’t think they were broken up, to which she calls him out for hypocrisy, making it known that she was aware of Sasha. She tells him that he’s toxic. “You have problems with anger, depression, your weird self hatred.” He tries to argue with her; it’s what he does best. For the first time in the movie Miko isn’t having it. She laughs, and when he asks her what’s funny, she says, “I just had the most amazing thought. I never have to listen to you again.” There is a shift in Ben’s face. For the first time in the movie, he sees himself through eyes that are not his own. And it isn’t pretty.
When he gets back to Meredith’s apartment, he hears her and Alice arguing. Meredith thinks that Ben is trying to break them apart, and Alice is saying that he’s just going through a rough time. He walks in and tells Meredith she’s right, and that he’s sorry. That night, they all celebrate Meredith’s birthday at a bar, and Alice announces she’s moving in with Meredith permanently. Ben, for the first time in the film, is happy for her.
The next morning, he flies back to California. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He has no job, no friends, and no girlfriend, but on the plane he’s sat behind this old Asian man. On that man’s screen, he’s watching that movie from the beginning of the film. The one that Ben hated so much. He’s watching the movie and crying, and in a rare moment of kindness, Ben sees that and smiles. And he gets it.
“Shortcomings” is a movie about an ass****, and that’s why I love it. Ben Tanaka is an unlikeable man who hates the world and takes it out on everyone in his life. He’s rude, he’s hypocritical, and he’s a liar. And he’s Asian American. So often, when we speak about representation, we aim for this ideal of “good representation.” We want characters who are smart, kind, attractive, who represent the community well, and give a good image. We don’t want characters who reinforce negative stereotypes. Self-loathing Asians and biphobic gays. But “Shortcomings” refuses to give you your model minority.
The film dives head-first into the complicated diasporic dynamics of Asian America. Ben is self-loathing, with a weird fetish for white women and a resentment towards his Asian girlfriend. Alice is avoidant, biphobic, and emotionally immature. Miko, for all of her talk about Asian solidarity and activism, is the “muse” of a white man who speaks Japanese. These characters are messy, unlikeable, and real.
Real people have flaws. They do bad things and they hurt others, and they don’t always learn their lessons. I don’t want Asian representation that pretends that Asian people are all good, or all smart, or all beautiful. I don’t think that helps anyone. While some may think that it raises tolerance around Asians, I find that it only really teaches people to tolerate certain Asians. It teaches you to tolerate those that are good, those that are respectable. But that’s not the same thing as true acceptance.
I think the only way that media can bring about tolerance is by representing the full breadth of Asian Americans. By portraying messy Asians, mean Asians, kind Asians, smart Asians, dumb Asians, all as human, all as worthy of respect. But I don’t think that tolerance is or should be the main goal of representation.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a zoomer, but I think that all of us go to the media for more than that. We watch our favorite TV shows and movies because of the emotions they evoke, the way that we relate to the characters, and the way that they make us feel seen. We build deep, personal relationships with the media we watch, let it impact us, let it make us think, let it change us.
When I watch movies with good Asians, I don’t feel seen. I’m not a perfect person. I make mistakes. I’ve been mean. I’ve been cruel, even. That’s not the totality of me, but there are parts of me that are unsavory, that reveal flaws in my character, because I’m a human being, with flaws and virtues both. That’s what I want to see from Asian people on screen. And that’s what “Shortcomings” is. It’s not a movie about representation, or for a social cause. It’s a story about people, and it tells the story of Asian Americans in the messy, unsavory, complicated way that the truth so often is.
Graphic Design: Caleb Goss