Park’s film opens with a spoof of “Crazy Rich Asians” that his protagonist, Ben (Justin H. Min of “The Umbrella Academy”), an art-house snob who dropped out of film school and manages an independent movie theater, calls a “garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies a capitalistic fantasy.” His politically active girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), points out that maybe the film is a “game changer” that could pave the way for someone like Ben to make something “cooler, artsy or whatever” — a clear foreshadowing for what Park and Tomine want to do. The conversations that Ben, Miko and Ben’s Korean American lesbian bestie Alice (Sherry Cola) have about Ben’s attraction to blonde women, Korean elders hating Japanese people, and whether it’s okay to date a rich White guy who might be an Asian fetishist both feel like conversations that constantly come up in the community and that hit a little bit differently now that EEAO is the pinnacle of AAPI cinematic achievement. We spoke with Park, 48, about the day’s Oscars news, how he came to “Shortcomings” and what representation on screen really looks like.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Okay, I didn’t plan for this, but “Everything Everywhere All At Once” just got so many Oscar nominations. What was your reaction?
A: I was on a plane, so all I saw were some headlines. All I knew is my friends from “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” were killing it. And I’m so, so thrilled for them.
Q: The year “Parasite” was nominated, there was a huge uproar because none of the actors got recognized. Do all the acting nominations for EEEAO and Hong Chau of “The Whale” seem like progress?
A: Yeah! It’s really cool. I mean, I know Ke [Huy Quan] and Stephanie [Hsu], and I’ve never met Michelle [Yeoh]. But I know the Daniels. I’ve worked with them before. And on top of being just so talented and unique and singular, they’re all such kind, sweet human beings, which makes it even more exciting for me personally.
Q: Do you think that something has changed in the industry over the past couple of years?
A: I definitely feel a shift, and I’ve felt it for a while — or just a lot of momentum. I think since “Crazy Rich Asians” and #OscarsSoWhite, there’s been, if not a revolution, at the very least a clear understanding from the industry that having these faces on screen and having these people who are traditionally underrepresented behind the camera is good business, too. The projects don’t just strike a chord with Asian audiences, but with everyone because the stories are ultimately universal.
Q: Why did you open your movie with a spoof of “Crazy Rich Asians” and have your characters debate whether or not it was a good thing?
A: Well, the graphic novel came out in 2007, and while the themes in the story were always evergreen, there were details that Adrian and I thought could use an update. We just felt like using a “Crazy Rich Asians”-like film to open the movie felt modern, but also very real, because characters like Ben are so real to me. And when “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, it was this ‘‘big movement and everyone was so excited because it was such a big deal, but there were always people who almost felt like they were being pressured to like it. Ben as a character really embodies a lot of folks that I knew who were almost resentful at the movie for kind of pressuring them to like it.
I think it speaks to kind of the narrative scarcity in terms of how basically that movie was to represent all Asian Americans. I think some people felt like, “Well, I don’t like that kind of movie. Why do I have to like it?” And I think a character like Ben kind of epitomizes that. He’s highly opinionated. He’s very judgmental. And the idea of feeling like he has to like a movie like that because of the community, it really bristles with him, and I think that was a very real thing. One movie can’t represent everybody, and certainly not someone like Ben.
Q: How did you figure out that this would be your directorial debut?
A: I had directed some TV and felt ready to try for a feature and had started a production company with my partners [Imminent Collision]. And I asked them, “Hey, what’s going on with ‘Shortcomings’?” And not necessarily to direct, but just to maybe produce because it had been so long since the book came out and I was just surprised that no one had ever done anything with it. And then we found out that the book had been optioned. And not only that, but that there was a script written by Adrian, and that they were meeting with directors. So I just immediately said, “Hey, I want to throw my hat in the ring,” even though it wasn’t what I was planning for at the time. But I just always loved that book and always imagined it as a movie, so I just felt like I should give it a shot, and I ended up pitching my vision for it and they gave me a thumbs up. That was in 2020, and we secured financing at the top of 2022.
A: It was about really just showcasing the performances. I really wanted to dig deep with a character like Ben, who can turn a lot of people off. And not just him. They’re all very flawed people, hence the title. And for me, it was like, “Well, we have to kind of see the humanity underneath.” I really wanted to make sure that with Ben we got the sense that there’s a deep sense of loneliness that’s fueling his tirades and his arguments and his opinions, just this real fear of change and fear of growth, because those things are so relatable for me.
Q: Where do you think his desire to date blonde-haired, blue-eyed White women comes in?
A: There’s little hints of it in his backstory. We don’t belabor it, but we made sure that you got the sense that he’s had a tough journey. He talks about being the only Asian person in his high school. I think he describes it as a Mormon modeling agency. You want to fit in, especially in those formative years. I think that’s common for a lot of people who grow up in the minority. And on top of that, the guy is a real cinephile. And the images he’s consumed kind of affected the way he sees the world, as well.
Q: I feel like a lot of the debates the characters have are ones I’ve had with my friends, about Korean elders not liking Japanese people because of World War II, or whether a White guy dating an Asian woman is a sign of a fetish, and whether or not that’s demeaning to the woman. Why did you want to showcase that?
A: I think in our community, these conversations are prevalent, and they’re very real. I really wanted it to just feel real. I didn’t want the movie to take a stance on anything. I just wanted these characters to take their stances on things. And because I’m in the community, like you, we have these conversations amongst our friends. We’re familiar with this stuff, and that’s what I got from the book when I first read it. It felt so real to me. It felt like my everyday life in a lot of ways, you know, being in the restaurant with my friends, hanging out in their apartment, and the things that they talked about felt like the things we talked about. For me, it was really about trying to make it feel authentic.
Q: A friend once told me that when Asian Americans get to be mediocre on screen, that’s when we’ve won.
A: That’s right! Totally. When we get to be flawed. And when we get to not have the answers all the time. Basically when we get to be human.
Q: I think a lot of people know you from this very commercial world of being in the MCU as FBI agent Jimmy Woo in “Ant Man” and from network TV. Why do an independent film?
A: Because I love indie movies, and I have this thing where if I’m a fan of something, I always want to try doing it myself. My favorite movies have always been people in real settings just working out their feelings, whether it be a Noah Baumbach movie or a rom-com, and I’ve directed TV and web shorts, and I just knew it would be independent film that I would dive into, just because I just love it so much.
Q: Do you feel like “Crazy Rich Asians” paved the way for you to get this made?
A: Definitely, but not just “Crazy Rich Asians.” I really do see it as a lineage going back as far as [1982′s] “Chan Is Missing,” [2002′s] “Better Luck Tomorrow,” … there are a lot of parallels with our film. “Saving Face,” “The Joy Luck Club,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” I really do see this direct line we get to be a part of, not just because of the success of those projects, but just how great they were.
Q: What were the best reactions you got at Sundance?
A: The experience was a total whirlwind. It was very scary. I did not expect it to be so emotional. A lot of anxiety, a lot of fear and a really great sense of camaraderie, with not just the cast and crew who were there but also with other filmmakers.
Q: You got a standing ovation.
A: That was pretty cool. You know, when I introduced this film, I had a whole thing written, but I was so nervous, and I’ve never been that nervous before when talking. But talking to that audience, knowing that we were about to screen this film that we worked on for a long while and we put so much into, it just filled me with fear and misery and worry and doubt, so it felt good to talk about that to the audience. I almost used them as my therapist, and I think that the reaction from them felt really good because it felt like they were all leaning in. And the standing ovation was great, but it just felt really nice to tell them how I was feeling, because I did feel very vulnerable, and to look at them and to see them smiling, that’s probably one of my highlights.