Randall Park Breaks Out of Character

The “Fresh Off the Boat” star made his career in amiable roles, but his directorial début, “Shortcomings,” is full of characters who are, in his word, “shitty” people.
Randall Park waters some flowers with a hose.
“I think that there will be people who are uncomfortable with it,” Park said of “Shortcomings,” which is based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine.Photograph by Willem Verbeeck for The New Yorker

I don’t remember when I first saw Randall Park, only that one day he seemed to be everywhere.

Park, a forty-eight-year-old Korean American actor, has been on television and in film for nearly two decades, becoming one of those faces you recognize instantly—but from what? For years, he had cameos and guest spots, playing a doctor, a friend of a friend, another doctor. He’s been on “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Veep,” and he is one of the few actors currently working in both the Marvel and the D.C. cinematic universes.

His career has been defined by a kind of chummy adaptability, whether he plays a dictator (he made Kim Jong Un seem like a fun hang in “The Interview,” from 2014) or raps, as he did as a slacker in the 2019 romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe,” or adopts an immigrant’s accent, as in his breakthrough role, on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” adapted from the chef Eddie Huang’s memoir. The series débuted in 2015 and was the first network show in nearly two decades to feature a predominantly Asian cast. For six seasons, Park played Louis Huang, the series’ wholesome, occasionally overwhelmed father. His onscreen presence makes him seem approachable, if people notice him at all. “One of the great advantages of being Asian, and borderline well known, is that people tend to think you look like just another Asian,” he told me. I made this mistake myself one time. We met near Manhattan’s Chinatown and, as he approached, I noticed his colorful cycling hat before I noticed him.

Park is the kind of actor who succeeds by reacting to other people’s drama rather than being at the center of his own. Onscreen, as well as in person, he is deferential and gracious, quick to fill in conversation with agreement and encouragement, happy to shift the focus away from himself. “I don’t consider myself a social person,” Park told me. “But acting forces me to be social. And, while I’m social, I’m, like, This is so fun. I’m so glad something’s forcing me to be social and to meet these people and talk to these people. Because if I was on my own I would never do that.”

In 2019, Park started Imminent Collision, a production company, with Michael Golamco and Hieu Ho, two friends he met through a theatre troupe he started in college. “He’s always been a really ambitious guy,” the comedian Ali Wong, his longtime friend and “Always Be My Maybe” co-star, told me. “But it’s never been gross.”

Park was in New York, with Ho, to film his directorial début, “Shortcomings,” an adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel about a group of young, somewhat unlikable Asian Americans negotiating relationships, late-twenties ambition, and their baser instincts. The film is set in the present, giving its central questions about race, self-loathing, and voyeurism a fresh backdrop: cancel culture, Instagram stalking, the question of whether “Crazy Rich Asians”-style blockbusters are actually good for the Asian American community—if you believe that such a thing exists.

“Shortcomings” is a movie full of, in Park’s word, “shitty” characters, and he has dreamed of making it for more than fifteen years. It’s an unlikely passion project for someone known for playing amiable roles. “You know how it is. It’s like they kind of know you for one thing, so that’s all the offers you’re getting,” he told me. “That’s where ‘Shortcomings’ comes in. I think people will be surprised. I anticipate when it comes into the real world it’ll be—I don’t know if ‘divisive’ is the word. I think that there will be people who are uncomfortable with it.”

Last fall, Park and I were driving through West Los Angeles in a weathered Toyota RAV4. A faded photo of his daughter was tucked into his visor. He proudly showed off one of his rare indulgences: a new receiver he had installed so that he could play music from his phone. “It’s crazy,” he said, chuckling. “I always wanted it.”

We pulled up in front of Hamilton High School, his alma mater, and he recalled the Los Angeles riots in 1992, when students were told to go home early, and he wandered the streets all day with a friend. “I wasn’t cool, but I was cool with everyone,” he told me. In high school, Park and his group of friends, which he describes as racially mixed, like a “perfect Benetton ad,” spent their free time filming their own skits, in the style of “In Living Color.”

Park has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, the second son of Korean immigrants. His father worked at a stuffed-toy company before opening a one-hour-photo studio in Santa Monica. For thirty years, his mother worked in the accounting office at the U.C.L.A. student store. His parents still live in the modest house in the Castle Heights neighborhood where he and his brother were brought up.

In the early nineteen-nineties, he attended U.C.L.A., a transformative experience. He had not grown up around many Asian Americans, and, at first, he was overwhelmed. Then, he said, “after a while, it was, like, Oh, my gosh, I love this. This is incredible. A community.” An introductory course in Asian American studies opened his eyes to the history, the contours, and the contradictions of this community.

An instructor encouraged Park to pursue creative writing. He and his friends decided to write plays and stage them. They founded an Asian American troupe, whose first performance was “The Treehouse Bachelor Society,” a play that Park had written about U.C.L.A. undergraduates, not unlike himself and his friends, trying to figure out relationships, ambition, and self-acceptance.

The opening night drew a sellout crowd of hundreds of people. “We were so cocky, because we were so popular,” Park said. “I remember, during that, hoping that this was gonna be like a Steppenwolf type of thing. One day we’ll look back and see all these people who came from that theatre company.”

Park stayed at U.C.L.A., where he started a master’s degree in Asian American studies, researching depictions of Korean merchants in African American film. Then he got a job as a graphic designer at a Los Angeles alternative weekly. He directed shows in the back yard of his parents’ house, where he was living; he taught himself stage makeup and amassed a collection of wigs and costumes. He did standup comedy and rapped in a band modelled after the Roots.

Around 2002, Park quit his full-time job and began to audition, mostly for commercials but occasionally for sitcoms. He booked just enough roles to feel O.K. about his long-term prospects, but not enough that he could leave home permanently. Even when he got his first steady gig, in 2006, as a cast member on the MTV improv-and-skit show “Wild ’N Out,” he didn’t give up his shifts at Starbucks. At U.C.L.A., his mother worked alongside young people who wanted to break into Hollywood. “They would show up to work with their head shots and reels and they’d show my mom,” Park said. “I know in her head it was, like, If they can’t make it, how on earth are you gonna make it?”

Park was in his late twenties when he started auditioning, and as he entered his thirties he regarded the small, competitive cohort of Asian American actors and wondered whether he fit in. He watched from afar as the director Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” premièred at Sundance, in 2002, becoming the first Asian American film ever to be acquired at the festival. By 2004, such actors as Daniel Dae Kim, a regular on the ABC series “Lost,” and John Cho, a star in the “Harold and Kumar” films, had broken through. Park was both heartened by their success and disheartened that opportunity seemed to be passing him by.

Around that time, Park auditioned for a guest spot on “Help Me Help You,” a short-lived sitcom starring Ted Danson as a therapist. His agent told him that the part was down to him and a friend from the Asian American theatre community. He spent the weekend waiting by the phone. His friend, he said, “wasn’t only a great actor, he was also super comfortable around people. And I was comfortable around my people, but I wasn’t comfortable around the world outside, you know? It always was a marvel to me when I’d see somebody who knew how to, like, be a human.”

“No one will ask me for help if I look like I’m about to leave.”
Cartoon by Amy Hwang

Park told me this story a couple of times, always with a mix of seriousness and self-effacing humor. “My entire future rested on this one-day guest-star role,” he said. He realized that this seemed like a minor indignity in an actor’s career. “I just needed some confirmation that I was doing the right thing with my life.” When his agent gave him the bad news, Park began crying. “It was the lowest I had ever felt,” he said.

He contemplated quitting and going for a master’s in architecture, but he hadn’t taken the prerequisite courses. So he kept auditioning. He recalls writing in his journal that his only goal was to book enough commercial work to be able to move out of his parents’ house, so that he could have his own back yard in which to stage plays.

Around this time, Park wandered into Giant Robot, a store specializing in Asian and Asian American pop culture. He gravitated toward the cover of “Shortcomings,” Tomine’s graphic novel: he had never seen Asian characters drawn in such a realistic, cliché-free style. And he had never read anything about young Asian Americans, like him, bumming around, hanging out in cafés, struggling with change, ambition, insecurity, and their own ugliness. He read the entire book in the store and then bought it so that he could read it again at home.

He saw himself in all the characters: some were politically righteous and romantic, others apathetic, judgmental, and cruel. In his experience, Asian American actors rarely got the chance to explore such a full range of emotions; they were often cast according to stereotype, as doctors or scientists, never as everyday antiheroes just trying to figure life out. He was struck: “Oh, my God, there were stories like this out in the world.”

Park dreamed of playing a character as complex as Tomine’s protagonist, a snobby, possibly self-loathing Japanese American film buff named Ben. But, as he slowly began booking gigs and piecing together a career, he aged out of the role.

In 2009, he married Jae Suh Park, an actress he had met at a theatre fund-raiser, and in 2012 they had a daughter, Ruby. The family starred in a 2013 Web comedy series that Park created, called “Baby Mentalist,” about a crime-fighting baby.

There are times when it’s hard to tell whether Park is smiling or grimacing, particularly when he reflects on the first decade of his career, which he recalls as an “extended low.” Making those low-budget Web series with friends, like “Baby Mentalist” and “Ikea Heights,” a soap-opera spoof that was surreptitiously filmed in an Ikea in Burbank, gave Park a creative outlet. But he was constantly fearful that work would dry up at any moment. In traffic just outside Hollywood, I asked how different his life might be if success had come earlier.

“I wouldn’t be as appreciative of things,” he said. He chuckled. “I definitely wouldn’t be driving a RAV4.”

He told me about a pilot he once shot, in which he played a police officer. As Park delivered his first line, the director cut him short. He told Park to be stronger. “I was just so eager to please,” Park said. “I was, like, Absolutely. I didn’t fully know what he meant, I was just, like, Yes, yes.” He tried another reading, but the director stopped him again: “Can you just play it more manly?” This happened several more times, until the director finally yelled at Park to “be more of a man!”

“I’m just shaking inside and trembling,” he told me. He ate lunch by himself, and spent the rest of the shoot too ashamed to speak to his fellow-actors.

I told him that this struck me as a far more wrenching story than the one about the Danson audition. But he said that, by the time he filmed the pilot, he had received enough rejections to understand that acting was not a “healthy life.”

He was forty when “Fresh Off the Boat” débuted. It was a career-making opportunity, and, significantly, it allowed him to spend time at home with his family. “I can see how playing the dad on a network sitcom is not the coolest thing in the world,” he said, his face creasing with a hint of weariness. “But I found success so much later, any regular job is incredible to me.”

Yet he felt some reluctance, including a bout of severe anxiety just before filming began. His character was Taiwanese American, and he was unsure whether it was right for a Korean American to do a Taiwanese immigrant’s accent. “There was a lot of pressure on that show to be the answer for, like, Asian America,” he said. “Having studied all that stuff and been a part of that community, I was a part of that pressure.” After filming the pilot, he asked to meet with Huang, whose memoir inspired the series, bringing him a special-edition bottle of Jack Daniel’s as a gift. Huang was already souring on ABC’s vision for the series, a creative schism that later led to his disavowing it. But he appreciated that the show represented something important. “I told Randall, Do you want to be part of making history and do something special that will open the door for other people?” Huang said to me. “Or do you want to stare at neuroses?”

When Huang was initially trying to sell the show, “the only Asian American dude on anything was Randall in ‘Veep.’ We are going to ride this Randall horse to the promised land. There was no other choice. He was Korean, he was uncomfortable . . . but I was, like, Clip up, dog, we ridin’ you. Randall did his thing, man.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” got good ratings and helped launch the careers of the actress Constance Wu and the comedian Ali Wong, a writer on the show, and a member of the theatre company that Park had founded in the nineties. The show aired for six seasons—a significant achievement. But its success was quickly overshadowed by a succession of even bigger milestones. In 2018, “Crazy Rich Asians” became one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time, turning Wu into a movie star. There were soon new peaks: the Chinese American filmmaker Lulu Wang’s 2019 indie hit, “The Farewell,” a Golden Globe winner about a woman travelling to China for a final visit with her terminally ill grandmother; “Minari,” from 2020, the Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s austere Academy Award-winning story of a Korean American family in rural Arkansas in the nineteen-eighties; and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” from 2021, Marvel’s first movie to feature an Asian American superhero. This year, no film has garnered more Academy Award nominations than “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a story of immigrant dislocation and family dysfunction filtered through the giddy psychedelia of the directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Park was friends with many of the people behind these projects. But he was never invited to audition for any of them. “It could be because I was unavailable, or it could be that they just didn’t see me in those roles,” he said.

Still, the stability of “Fresh Off the Boat” gave Park the chance to make more deliberate choices about his work. He approached Tomine about adapting “Shortcomings,” though he was self-conscious about meeting the author, worried that Tomine wouldn’t find him “cool” enough for the job. “Ben”—the book’s arrogant protagonist—“would hate me,” Park told me, and he assumed that Tomine would, too. “The last person he’d want to hear from is the dad from ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ ” he said. “I thought Adrian was Ben, and I thought Louis was too corny for Ben.”

Tomine, a contributor to this magazine, began self-publishing a mini comic series, “Optic Nerve,” as a teen-ager in Sacramento in the early nineties. The stories offered readers impressions of his life as a shy, bookish, artsy, deeply opinionated youth.

Tomine, who is a fourth-generation Japanese American, continued to publish “Optic Nerve” while an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley. His style was austere and tense. He drew faces caught between insecurity and angst. As more people discovered “Optic Nerve,” they noticed that his comics rarely featured Asian protagonists. “I was getting an increasing amount of, not criticism, but just inquiries from Asian American readers,” he told me. “ ‘Why aren’t you representing Asian American characters?’ The darker side of it is that some people thought I was trying to disguise my background and whitewash the stories I wanted to tell for the sake of a broader audience.

“I was young and defiant and rebellious and kind of snotty. And so my first reaction was, If that’s what you want, then I’m definitely not gonna do it at all.”

But, in the early two-thousands, Tomine came up with the characters of Ben, an arrogant, insecure Japanese American film buff largely afraid of change, and Alice, his best friend, an acerbic, womanizing Korean American graduate student unafraid to tell it like it is—except to her conservative family. “The characters were a way to have a conversation with myself, to have a devil’s advocate or someone who’s gonna call you out on your bullshit,” Tomine said.

“Shortcomings” opens with a young Asian American woman pondering her stoic grandfather, the proprietor of a fortune-cookie factory: “For most of my life I had felt distant from my grandfather, perhaps mistaking the language barrier for coldness.” Eventually, she realizes that he is not unlike the cookies he sells, “a hard, protective shell” full of wisdom.

Readers may have been surprised to see Tomine turn toward such a maudlin vision of representation, after avoiding it for so long. The next pages, however, reveal that this is a scene from a low-budget independent film screening at something called “Asian-American Digi-Fest.” As the audience applauds, we meet Ben, who squirms uncomfortably in his seat. He spends the drive home lecturing his girlfriend, Miko, who helped organize the festival. “Why does everything have to be some big ‘statement’ about race?” he asks. “Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’s good?” He refuses to grade the film on the curve of representational politics.

Ben has a complicated relationship with whiteness. He and Miko argue about why his sexual fantasies involve only white actresses. At the same time, he expresses disgust toward Asian women who date white men. He is a caricature of a certain kind of insecure Asian male, claiming that he is above race and has no need for community, yet clinging to the emasculating effects of racial victimhood to explain his toxic behavior.

“Shortcomings” was a crossover hit, earning comparisons to Philip Roth. Some read Ben’s crankiness as a brazen critique of identity politics. It was rare for someone to poke fun at the earnestness of identity-driven art and the presumption that such efforts were beyond criticism. Other readers, though, saw Tomine’s protagonist not as a truth-teller but as an archetype of self-loathing. Tomine recalls one uncomfortable appearance at a bookstore, where an audience member asked him about his own relationship status. “This is a work of fiction,” Tomine replied. As the person sat down, he said, loudly, “I’ll bet his wife is white.”

On a warm afternoon in July, Park was standing on a quiet street in Manhattan, just north of Union Square. He was directing a scene in which Ben (Justin Min) and Alice (Sherry Cola) surprise Ben’s girlfriend at work. Park was dressed in various shades of khaki—shorts, tan Hoka sneakers, a fitted baseball cap. He wore a colorful bracelet that his wife had made him with their daughter’s name on it. Around his waist was a fanny pack holding his phone and a cigar he was saving for the last day of the shoot.

Tomine stood behind Park, who looked at a monitor to see how the shot would be framed. Tomine was so accustomed to working in solitude, he told me, that he found the various moving parts of a film set exhilarating. He’d written a screenplay of “Shortcomings” soon after the book’s initial success, only to be told that it wasn’t “castable.” In the years since, he had updated the setting and the dialogue.

Hieu Ho, one of Park’s producing partners and his friend from college, recalled being slightly confused by Park’s initial attraction to the graphic novel’s characters. But he realized that it was “less about relating to these characters and more like knowing these characters.”

“You would not want to relate to these characters,” Park added with a chuckle. “They were bad. But they were also, like, trying, you know? And it was something that you never got to see Asian Americans do in that way.” It wasn’t just that Park had never had the chance to play a “bad” character like Ben; I wondered if he’d ever truly related to his own happy-go-lucky roles.

Initially, Park feared that Justin Min, a thirty-two-year-old Korean American actor known for his work on the series “Umbrella Academy” and the 2021 film “After Yang,” was “too pretty” to play Ben. But he recognized that Min could communicate the underlying sadness of the role. “I saw myself in him,” Min said, from his house, in Los Angeles. “I told Randall at one of our first meetings, I am Ben.” He paused, clarifying that he’d evolved past some of these tendencies. “Everything about him reminded me so much of my former self, five, six years ago. His cynicism, his critical eye about everything, his unconscious pretentiousness about things.”

Min recalled having lunch with Park and Cola. Park told them the story of the pilot where the director had kept humiliating him. Min and Cola couldn’t stop talking about it afterward. “I’ve never had to deal with that, because by the time I came up in the industry things were starting to change,” Min told me. Not only has Min been offered a wider range of roles than Asian American actors of previous generations, he’s also worked on major projects with directors who, like him, are Asian American. Yet even this new wave of opportunity is not without its complications. Min thought that there was a feeling of overcompensation, as if, after decades of regrettable depictions of Asians, the scales were tipping too heavily in the other direction: “A lot of the roles are these men who are perfect, chiselled, morally upright, righteous. It’s almost as if the subversion of the stereotype continues to uphold the stereotype.”

Min and Cola did a few quick takes, experimenting with ways for Min’s character to express his frustration that his girlfriend was not where she claimed she would be. Some tourists did a double take when Min punctuated the last take by loudly shouting, “Fuck!” Park was happy with Min’s ad-libs and dismissed his leads for the day, and Min and Cola wandered back to their trailers, arms linked, as though they were actual best friends.

In the early evening, the crew moved a few blocks, to the vestibule of an apartment building near Madison Square Park, which they were using for the film’s opening scene. The contemporary version of Ben wouldn’t hate some innocuous indie—he would hate “Crazy Rich Asians.” Ben and Miko are still at a small film festival. But they are watching a glossy, big-budget rom-com, starring Asian Americans, that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the 2018 movie. A major studio has sent it to the festival to build buzz within the community.

When Tomine saw the reception of “Crazy Rich Asians,” he was curious if Hollywood would now want more “I.P. that has Asian people in it,” allowing an adaptation of “Shortcomings” to finally get made. But he also wondered if the scale of the movie’s success might crowd out more nuanced stories. “I missed my chance to do something personal and small and offbeat, and now it’s the era of blockbusters,” he recalled worrying. This wasn’t an uncommon response. “There was a part of me that really appreciated ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ” Min said. He was in the early stages of his career, and friends assumed that he would be able to swim in its wake. “But it was for a very specific kind of audience. I had conflicted feelings. But it was not something I could speak easily and openly about, because we were living in a time of narrative scarcity. We really had to just be on board.”

The movie-in-a-movie that opens “Shortcomings” allows the film’s characters to debate this issue. The lobby after the screening is humming with excitement. “It’s ours!” one of the festival organizers says. “That’s us, baby!” Later that night, Ben dismisses the movie as “a garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of vindication through wealth and materialism.”

Cartoon by Sam Gross

Inside the Manhattan apartment building, designers applied wallpaper to the mirrored interior of an elevator, giving it a lavish feel. Park had persuaded Ronny Chieng, an actor and comedian best known for his work on “The Daily Show,” and Stephanie Hsu, one of the Oscar-nominated leads of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” to star in the “Crazy Rich Asians” sendup.

The shoot began late at night. Chieng was in a tuxedo, holding a glass of Scotch and a newspaper as props. Hsu carefully shuffled through the lobby in a radiant gold dress. The scene echoes the opening of “Crazy Rich Asians,” as a snooty concierge at a luxury apartment tower rejects Hsu’s application, not realizing that she and her husband are wealthy enough to buy the entire building. Tomine watched the monitor, mouthing along with the dialogue, delighted after each take.

During a break to reset the camera, Hsu and Chieng sat on a bench and chatted. I asked them if it was strange to spoof “Crazy Rich Asians”—especially since Chieng made his feature début in the film, playing a loudmouthed banker. “There’s people in the Asian community who didn’t like that movie. For me, it’s almost, like, showing why those people are being unreasonable,” Chieng said excitedly. “That’s why I agreed to do this. Not because I wanted to defend my movie.” He paused and laughed. “ ‘My’ movie. The movie I had a small role in. I just feel like there’s a thing of, when there’s not enough representation, every single project has so much pressure to be everything for everyone. It’s very easy to complain about things, especially when you’re not making anything. That’s one of the themes” in “Shortcomings.” “It’s easy to be critical when you don’t have to make anything. It’s a lot harder to actually make stuff.”

“I feel like I see it less as a spoof and more like—a nod,” Hsu added.

“That movie is actually satirical,” Chieng said, of “Crazy Rich Asians.” “In my opinion, the correct reading of that movie is it’s a satirical movie.” He went on, “Here, we’re satirizing the satire, which is very ‘Inception’-like, but, if you zoom out, the main character of this movie doesn’t get that. All he sees is his own hate and insecurity. For me, I want to shit on these guys.” He laughed.

Hsu said that she thought “Shortcomings” was part of a wave of more “nuanced” films and conversations only possible after the successes of “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Chieng agreed. “When something goes well, it helps everything else go well,” he said. “So that’s an argument in favor of a major blockbuster movie.” Park came over to check in on the actors. “In the hands of a lesser director or lesser producer, this would become a weird, incel, self-hating, Asian-hating-Asian . . . ” Chieng said, catching Park’s eye. “Thank God for the delicate hands of Mr. Park to come and thread that needle.”

Chieng and Hsu wrapped their scene at around 1:30 a.m. It was nearly three when the crew moved to the final location of the day: an external shot of the luxury apartment tower where Chieng and Hsu’s scene supposedly took place. When we arrived, crew members were panicked, because city workers had set up to do late-night construction in the frame. Park looked at the shot and assured them that it would be O.K.

“I’ve heard people say that being a director is like answering a hundred questions with certainty at any given moment,” Tomine whispered to me. “Like, right now, I have no idea if this is a relaxed or stressed situation. I can’t tell.”

They got the shot and, just before four, broke for the weekend. Park wove through the crew, shaking hands and thanking everyone by name.

In November, Park was in the middle of editing “Shortcomings,” trying to incorporate notes from his producers and financiers. There were still debates about where the film’s tone should ultimately land—how it should balance ugliness with levity. “I’m very protective of it,” he said. Having gone along with direction and notes for so long, he was surprised by how testy he could be in responding to feedback, often writing long, overly detailed e-mails explaining why seemingly minor changes bothered him. “Being that person does not come natural to me,” he said. “I don’t even like the feeling of being that person. But I just can’t help it with this.” He found one note, suggesting that they add more broad comedy, “insulting.” He joked that he wanted to make the film “appeal to less people,” not more. “Just appeal as strongly to the people who would be into it as possible, and really make it right for those people.”

Who were those people?

“Certain Asian Americans. But not all.”

He guessed that responses to the film would be mixed, and said that that would be all right. I asked if he thought “Shortcomings” had benefitted from the recent run of successful Asian American films. “It makes it easier to get this made, but it makes it harder to get it made right,” he said. “In the sense that movies like ‘The Farewell’ or ‘Minari’—these great movies that I love, and even ‘Everything Everywhere,’ to a degree—they all are great pieces of work. But they’re also . . .” He paused. “They have those traditional markers. Themes of family. If not an immigrant experience, some overseas thing happening. There’s always an elder involved. Those are all markers that we look for—even Asian Americans look for—to judge the authenticity of something. My goal is to try to make it as authentic as possible with none of those markers at the center of the story.”

“Shortcomings” was accepted to Sundance. In January, a few days before the festival, I spoke to Park at his home, in Studio City. He looked exhausted. He had recently shown the movie to some friends who weren’t actors or art-house fans, and he thought the fact that it was populated by so many philandering creeps made them uncomfortable. “They said they liked it,” he told me, with a hint of worry on his face. “But I could kinda feel that they were a little bummed out at the end.” I asked if he was hoping to make a splash at Sundance. Ho, his production partner, had been at the festival in 2002, when Justin Lin’s buzzy hit “Better Luck Tomorrow” attracted new interest after a racist question about the film’s “amoral” depiction of young Asian Americans derailed a post-screening Q. & A. Maybe something similar would happen? Park finally laughed. “This movie is just a movie. It’s not a movement. That’s a good thing for us.”

From afar, “Shortcomings” appeared to be a success at Sundance. On social media, the film was described as charming and funny, with all the breeziness of an expertly crafted rom-com, until viewers realized there was very little “rom.” Early reviews held it up as a sort of anti-“Crazy Rich Asians.”

A couple of days after the festival, I Zoomed with Park. On the wall behind him were family photos and a poster for the “Shortcomings” graphic novel. He still looked worn out.

He told me how emotional he’d been before the first screening; he hadn’t felt that way since the début of his first play, at U.C.L.A. It’s customary for the filmmaker to provide an introduction at the première, and Park had written a short speech touching on the recent shootings at the lunar New Year celebrations in Monterey Park, as well as on what Tomine’s book meant to him—the importance of showing these flawed characters, his pride in bringing them to life. But he had been so anxious that he began ad-libbing. “I had never been so nervous before around an audience,” he said to me. “I just started telling them how nervous I was, and how strange all this was for me. I had never worked so hard on one thing for so long. And to finally show it was—I think I talked about how there’s a part of me that just wants every single person to like it, but that’s a completely unrealistic thing, but how it stems from this part of me that just wants to be liked by everybody. And I started using the audience almost as my therapist.” I laughed. Park smiled. “It got a good laugh, but I was being genuine, you know? And then how this intense desire to be liked can be crippling, especially if you’re an artist. And then I introduced the film.” ♦