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Film and TV

Randall Park Is Keeping It Real

The seasoned actor and first-time director subverts stereotypes by mining the inherent drama of our messy lives.



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MORE OFTEN THAN not, I feel perverse. Like a rock that, when lifted, reveals an underbelly squirming with worms and centipedes. I’ll humor an inner dialogue sometimes: Am I truly rotten? Or excessively self-critical? It’s a thinly veiled exercise. I know I’m twisted. I’m fine with it. It’s why I liked Randall Park’s new movie, “Shortcomings,” so much. Adapted from a 2007 graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, the film is about a group of young Asian Americans navigating modern life: intimacy, friendship, identity. The protagonist, Ben, is the worst. But he’s also the best. Sanctimonious and often delusional, toxic at times, he portrays a role seldom seen in Hollywood: a deeply flawed Asian American, flailing and failing along the way. And yet, I root for him. He’s not airbrushed.

“Shortcomings” is a tricky tangle of imperfect characters to tackle as one’s directorial debut — though you probably know Park as an actor on “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “The Interview,” and “Veep.” So, when we sit down to talk, I’m eager to dig into its contrasting themes of self-righteousness to self-loathing. I actually turn this dichotomy to Park: What are his favorite and least favorite parts of himself? Wearing a dark T-shirt with a silver chain glinting above the neckline, he gives a slow, melancholic smile. “It’s always been this desire to be liked. Liked by everybody. It’s an unreasonable trait to have when you’re in this field. There are definitely going to be people who just do not like the movie. For someone like me, who’s very sensitive, it’s a big risk. But at the same time, I don’t want to have to care what people think all the time.”



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He doesn’t tell me his favorite part of himself. I push him to answer. “That’s a tough one for me,” he admits. “There is a part of me that is, in a weird way, fearless. I want to please everybody. But I also have taken so many risks in my life.”

I was raised in New York City by a Korean immigrant mother, so I’m selfishly curious to know about Park’s experience as a child of Korean immigrant parents in Los Angeles. “There was less of an emphasis on keeping the culture, on maintaining this idea of Koreanness,” he replies. “A lot more emphasis was placed on being American — as American as you can. ‘We don’t want you to go through what we’ve experienced. We want you to fit in.’” Park’s next sentiment acutely resonates with me: “As I grew older, I started to have a little resentment. ‘Why didn’t you force our, or nurture, our culture in us?’” He admits it was a pendulum swing, something I remember feeling too. “Growing up, all I wanted to be was not that. I was embarrassed by my parents’ accents, but as I got older, I longed for it. I wished that it was more of a part of my identity. But then I understood why they did the things they did.”

I confess a mirror experience with my own mother that I’ve previously explored in an essay seeking to answer: Can one ever truly take pride in a culture they feel outside of? “Can I ask,” Park gently inquires, “do you take ownership and pride in those things today?” I tell him it’s hard to feel ownership of something kept at a distance, that you never had to fight to preserve. Observing the rise of Korean cool, I share the surprise I often feel — memories still fresh of white folks recoiling at the pungent smell of kimchi. Park understands this, too. “It’s hard not to look at it from the perspective of an American; to see these things resonating in this country of all places is very surprising — and optimistic. I went to a BTS concert years ago, and it was one of the most incredible experiences I ever had. It was packed with fans of all races. And seeing these young Korean guys up there, being so cool and so confident and talented, and seeing these fans, it was very emotional for me.”


“I think of everyone's journeys in terms of … ” Park bounces a bit from side to side, as if rolling a thought around his body, “identity … it’s different. But from my vantage point, I see all of that as a part of you. I see it as a part of me. Even though, yes, it is more complicated than it is for some people.”

As Asian American representation increases in the media, Park’s hope is for more stories from more specific voices, noting the same roster of themes historically attributed to Asian narratives: “The immigrant story, the intergenerational conflict, martial arts. And all of those are great.” But, he elaborates, “The more stories we get to tell from the various voices that make up this culture, the weirder we get — then we will really be moving.”

It’s what captivated Park when he first read Tomine’s graphic novel, reveling in its unflinchingly questionable characters. “We don’t see that much in culture with Asian Americans. This so-called model minority, not making waves. So to represent such an intimate portrayal of very flawed people, being complicated in their daily lives — that’s so exciting to me.”

The bad in me, the real in me — in all of us with so few nuanced portraits of ourselves — toasts to that. With a fat shot of soju.

Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer. Under the New York Times’ creative agency, she helped lead the relaunch of Departures Magazine, where she then went on to become the food editor. Her background spans editorial, brand, and books.

Emanuel Hahn Photographer

Emanuel Hahn is a Los Angeles–based photographer working on topics of identity and culture. His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and Aperture, among others.


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