Park’s film opens with a “Crazy Rich Asians” spoof that portrays its protagonist, Ben (Justin H. Min of “The Umbrella Academy”), an arthouse snob who dropped out of film school and manages an independent movie theater, a “garish mainstream rom -com that glorifies a capitalist fantasy.” His politically active girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), points out that the movie might be a “game changer” that could pave the way for someone like Ben to make something “cooler, artier, or whatever” – a clear foreshadowing of what Park and Tomine want to do. The conversations Ben, Miko, and Ben’s Korean-American lesbian bestie Alice (Sherry Cola) have about Ben’s attraction to blonde women, Korean elders who hate the Japanese, and whether it’s okay to date a rich white man who might be an Asian fetishist both feel like conversations that constantly surface in the community that resonate a little differently now that EEAO is the pinnacle of AAPI film achievement. We spoke to Park, 48, about the Oscar news of the day, how he came up with “Shortcomings,” and what the on-screen rendering is really like.
This conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Q: Okay, I didn’t plan this, but “Everything Everywhere All At Once” has gotten so many Oscar nominations. What was your reaction?
A: I was on a plane so all I saw was some headlines. All I knew was that my friends from “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” were killing it. And I’m so, so happy for them.
Q: The year “Parasite” was nominated, there was a huge uproar as none of the actors were recognized. Do all the acting nominations for EEEAO and Hong Chau from “The Whale” seem like progress?
A: Yes! 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 besides being so talented and one of a kind and one of a kind, they’re all such nice, lovely people, which makes it even more exciting for me personally.
Q: Do you think anything has changed in the industry in recent 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 a revolution, if not a revolution, at least a clear understanding of the industry that it’s a good thing to have these faces on screen and these having people traditionally underrepresented behind the camera , too. The projects not only strike a chord with the Asian public, but with everyone because the stories are ultimately universal.
Q: Why did you open your movie with a “Crazy Rich Asians” spoof and let 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 green, there were details that Adrian and I thought could use an update. We just felt like using a “Crazy Rich Asians” kind of movie to open the movie, which felt modern, but also very real, because characters like Ben are so real to me. And when “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, it was a “big movement” and everyone was so excited because it was so important, 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 people I knew who were almost outraged by the movie for pressuring them to like it.
I think it speaks to the narrative scarcity in terms of how that movie was supposed to represent essentially all Asian Americans. I think some people thought, ‘Well, I don’t like those kinds of movies. Why should I like it?” And I think a character like Ben kind of embodies that. He is very stubborn. He is very judgmental. And the idea of feeling like he has to like a movie like that because of the community, he really likes it, and I think that was very real. One movie can’t represent everyone, especially someone like Ben.
Q: How did you find out this would be your directorial debut?
A: I had directed some TV and felt ready to try my hand at a feature film and had started a production company with my partners [Imminent Collision]. And I asked them, “Hey, what’s up with ‘Flaws’?” And not necessarily to direct, but just maybe to 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 they met with directors. So I just immediately said, “Hey, I want to throw my hat in the ring,” even though I didn’t intend to 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 eventually I pitched my vision for it and they gave me a thumbs up. That was in 2020 and we secured funding around 2022.
A: It was basically about presenting the performances. I really wanted to dig deep with a character like Ben, who can put a lot of people off. And not only him. They are all very flawed people, hence the title. And to me it was like, “Well, we have to see humanity underneath.” I really wanted to make sure we got the sense with Ben that there’s a deep sense of loneliness that fuels 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 blond haired white women with blue eyes comes from?
A: There are few hints of it in his backstory. We won’t elaborate, but we made sure to make you feel like he’s had a rough journey. He says that he is the only Asian 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. Moreover, the man is a real cinephile. And the images he’s consumed have also had a bit of an impact on the way he sees the world.
Q: I feel like a lot of the debates the characters have are the ones I’ve had with my friends, about Korean elders not liking Japanese people because of World War II, or that a white man dating an Asian woman is a sign of is a fetish, and whether it is degrading to the woman. Why did you want to show that?
A: I think these conversations are common in our community, and they are very real. I really wanted it to just feel real. I didn’t want the movie to take a position on anything. I just wanted these characters to take their stand on things. And because I’m in the community, like you, we have these conversations among our friends. We’re familiar with this stuff, and that’s what I got out of 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 at the restaurant with my friends, hanging out at their apartment, and the things 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 mediocre on screen, we’ve won.
A: That’s right! Absolutely. When we become flawed. And if we don’t always have the answers. Actually when we become 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 make an independent film?
A: Because I love indie movies, and I have a thing where if I’m a fan of something, I always want to try it myself. My favorite movies have always been people in real life situations just acting out their feelings, whether it was a Noah Baumbach movie or a rom-com, and I’ve directed TV and web shorts, and I just knew it would be an independent movie are that I would dive into just because I just love it so much.
Q: Do you feel that “Crazy Rich Asians” paved the way for you to get this made?
A: Absolutely, but not just ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. I really see it as a lineage that goes back as far as [1982′s] “Chan is missing,” [2002′s] “Better Luck Tomorrow,” … there are many parallels with our movie. ‘Saving Face’, ‘The Joy Luck Club’, ‘Everything everywhere at once’. I really see this direct line that we’re becoming a part of, not just because of the success of those projects, but just how great they were.
Q: What were the nicest comments you got on Sundance?
A: The experience was a total whirlwind. It was very scary. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. A lot of fear, a lot of fear and a really great sense of camaraderie, not just with the cast and crew that were there, but also with other filmmakers.
Q: You got a standing ovation.
A: That was pretty cool. You know, when I introduced this movie, I had written a whole thing, but I was so nervous, and I’ve never been so nervous when talking. But when I spoke to that audience, knowing that we were about to show this movie that we’ve worked on for a long time and put so much into, it just filled me with fear and misery and worry and doubt, so it felt right to talk about that to the public. I almost used them as my therapist, and I think the response from them felt really good because it felt like they were all leaning forward. And the standing ovation was great, but it just felt really nice to tell them how I felt, because I felt very vulnerable, and to look at them and see them smile, that’s probably one of my highlights.