Ben Tanaka (Justin Min), a failed filmmaker living in Berkeley, is lacking in many aspects.
The protagonist of the new movie Shortcomings, shot partly in the East Bay, is arrogant and unsupportive, and says he’s “in the industry” to justify snickering during a movie showing at the local film festival organized by his girlfriend. (His only real connection to the industry is working as a manager at a struggling fictional movie theater inspired by two in real-life Berkeley: the now-closed California Theater and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood.) He’s also a hypocrite — despite his own obsession with white women, he becomes aggravated when he sees Asian women with white men.
The Shortcomings comic is available for purchase
When his girlfriend announces that she’s moving to New York City for an internship, Ben, left in Berkeley, is forced to grapple with his many insecurities.
Scattered between reminders of how awful Ben can be are moments that give you hope that he is capable of character growth. We see a better Ben when he’s sharing a meal with his lesbian best friend Alice (Sherry Cola); we see a different side of him when he pretends to be Alice’s boyfriend in front of her traditional Korean family.
The witty comedy, which began showing in theaters this month, marks Fresh Off the Boat actor Randall Park’s directorial debut. Shortcomings is an adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s 2007 comic of the same name, which he worked on during his time in Berkeley.
Tomine, who wrote the screenplay and helped with location scouting, insisted on shooting in real-life Berkeley.
While the production team ultimately wasn’t able to film in all of the Berkeley institutions mentioned in the original comic when they visited in August 2022, Homemade Cafe, Original Pollo, Amoeba Records on Telegraph, the Ohlone Greenway, Pegasus Books’ Downtown Berkeley location and César Chávez Park all make appearances in the movie.
The last showing of Shortcomings at the Rialto Elmwood (Berkeley’s last remaining commercial movie theater, also struggling) is on Thursday, Aug. 17.
Berkeleyside asked Tomine a few questions about his work. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You lived in Berkeley for a decade. What brought you here?
I moved to Berkeley in 1992 to go to school at Cal, and I was already also at the same time starting my career as a cartoonist. I was self-publishing my work at that time. And by my junior year at Cal, I got picked up by a publisher called Drawn & Quarterly, which I still work with to this day. It was towards the end of that 10 years that I spent living in Berkeley, that I started writing the book that would become Shortcomings.
I was struck by how candidly Shortcomings — which you began working on in 2002 — grapples with Asian American masculinity, insecurity , and racial politics. Why did you feel it was important to contend with those issues in your work?
I entered into the public sphere in a fairly naive way. I didn’t think at all about an audience or how my work would be received, or how it’d be criticized or praised. When I just started out, it was a hobby that turned into a job. I was drawing things in my sketchbook and self-publishing them and thinking that maybe five family and friends might read it, and it just evolved, to my surprise, from there.
Once I started working in a more public way and started talking to journalists and critics and readers, I was initially a little surprised that questions about me as a person and specifically my racial background started coming up. I now know how naive it was, but I thought at the time that the work would speak for itself and there would be no interest in me as a person at all — it would just be about the comics.
With Shortcomings I was for the first time very intentionally taking up the challenge of addressing issues of race, exploring myself more specifically, more deeply, in ways that might be more uncomfortable than I had before. But I also wanted to do that in a way that felt consistent with the work that I’ve done before and make something that was essentially a comedy too, so those were the challenges that I set for myself.
While reading Shortcomings, I recognized quite a few references to Berkeley spots. Can we go through a few of them and have you say the first thing that comes to mind, starting with Smokehouse (renamed “Smoke Pit” in the comic) ?
That is literally around the corner from where my mom used to live for a number of years. Even back when I was just a college student, [it] was a place that me and other other people from my dorm would make the trek down Telegraph to go there late at night to get food, as are many of the locations in the book. It’s one of those places that I think most people who’ve spent some time in Berkeley, they’d recognize the sign and understand that atmosphere of being there late at night after a party, getting your food from the window and sitting out on those picnic benches.
Durant Food Court (a.k.a. “Asian Ghetto,” although that nickname is increasingly outdated)
In my time, there were definitely worse names than that. Asian Ghetto, I think, was almost the burnishing of it. That drove me crazy, because I really wanted to film a scene for the movie there because it’s so explicitly included in the book, and it was just not feasible for a bunch of different reasons. We actually did film another scene, literally around the corner from there in front of Amoeba Records and so while we were doing that, it was just driving me crazy.
That was another one of those places that I spent a lot of late nights at, especially when I was living in the dorms just up the street from there. It just seemed like the right site. There’s a specific interaction and dialogue that happens in that scene, and you know, like with a lot of the writing of the book, I would come up with the plot or the dialogue first and then try and think of where would be the most appropriate place for that to transpire. And that was the first thing that came to mind.
Juan’s Place (renamed Jose’s Place).
That was an old Berkeley landmark even before I got there, and so the fact that it’s still there is great. That was a place that I went to more after college, because you had to have a car to get there. I had a group of fellow cartoonist friends in Berkeley, and that was just one of the handful of dinner spots that we meet up at all the time. I knew it well. And you know, a lot of the things in this book were just meant to amuse a small group of friends or family members, and so that was one of those things that I knew my cartoonist friends would see and instantly recognize.
Crepevine on College Avenue (renamed Crepe Expectations).
I had a fantasy of them filming a scene there, but that didn’t work. It was just another place walking distance from where I lived when I was writing the Shortcomings comic. A significant amount of it was actually written there. I would, you know, take my notebooks and pencils and just to get out, get out of the house. I don’t know if it’s still the same, but it was a place that was really spacious and you could go up on like a second floor, kind of a balcony area, where it wasn’t that crowded and no one would bother you if you were there for a number of hours.
I would just go there and get a coffee or something and sit there and work on the rough draft of Shortcomings. There’s different phases of making a comic and some of them you’re really trapped at your house and you have to have your drafting table and all your equipment and all that kind of stuff. But the writing phase is kind of like the nice phase, similar to writing a script where you really can be portable, and so when I was working on that phase of shortcomings, I would go to Crepevine.
There was a place on Ashby and College called Dream Fluff Doughnuts that I used to go to a lot, and I’d sort of sit outside, get a little sun and fresh air while I drank my coffee and worked on the book. There’s a lot of those places where it was just like, I’m inventing this dialogue between two characters who are supposed to be having lunch somewhere in Oakland, and then I just be like, I’ll just make it at this place.
California Theatre and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (renamed University Theater in the comic and Berkeley Arts Cinema in the film).
The theater is mostly based on the California Theatre, but also for my entire time in Berkeley, I lived on College Avenue, so I walked by the Elmwood theater quite a bit, too, so that was sort of an inspiration for it. The marquee and some of that stuff is explicitly modeled on the California, which I know is now gone.
I’ve always been a movie fan, and I was always going to the movies in Berkeley. While I was there that was sort of the last pre-streaming era, where if you want to see a movie, we’re going to go to a theater so that was a big part of my life. I thought of that as a good spot. The story came first and then the settings had to fit that, and so for some of the logistical things involving a ticket booth … the California came to mind right away.
We’re now down to just one commercial movie theater: the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. As a self-described movie fan, what do you make of the shuttering of most of Berkeley’s movie theaters?
I think it represents a terrible turn in our culture. Fortunately, I live in a city [New York] where, if anything, there’s new movie theaters opening, but if I was still in Berkeley, I think I’d be very, very upset about that. I feel like it would affect me in a very, not just in sort of intellectual way, but in a very real way. Like, that would really change my life — not being able to just walk to a movie theater on any given night.
I think it’s horrible. I hate to see bookstores closing, I hate to see movie theaters closing; I hate to see comic shops closing. Those were all things that really were my version of an arts education. I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t have any kind of formal training, in comics or film, but I really learned everything from going to those establishments, and so I feel bad for sort of like the teenage equivalent of me now who is trying to have that same experience but with, you know, fewer possibilities.
But there is the internet, and a lot of art and books can be found online.
I mean, all those things are available on the internet. And maybe someone who was born more recently just wouldn’t mourn the loss of those businesses at all because they feel like it’s just replaced by the internet – it’s cheaper and quicker and everything. So, this might just be the rantings of an aging guy or something, but to me, to be honest, it affects how I think of cities.
If I go to a city that doesn’t have good bookstores and good movie theaters and things like that, it really affects my perception of the town itself in the way that other people might be concerned about its proximity to nature or good restaurants or something like that. Those things are really important to me.
Why was it important to you that the movie be filmed in the real East Bay?
I don’t want to shatter too many illusions, but there are a lot of things in the film where the exteriors were filmed in Berkeley or Oakland and the interiors were filmed in New York. But even getting those exteriors, or some of the actual shots where dialogue is happening, on Telegraph Avenue, the Berkeley Marina, or when the two characters are driving to the Oakland Airport along Hegenberger Road … I didn’t think we’d even get to do this or that anyone would care enough. All that stuff was really important to me, even though it was expensive and complicated.
In the earliest stages of discussing this movie with the producers, one of the things that I was very adamant about was that we use the real locations. I said, “This is a story about the East Bay and New York City, and it’s really important that it’s filmed in those two places, and if it doesn’t seem feasible in a budgetary sense, if it seems like it’s going to be one of those movies where they’re obviously filming in Vancouver and they talk about it being in San Francisco or New York or something, I would rather actually not have the movie exist and have that kind of fakeness to it.” We had to work really hard to make our budget work, and certain people made sacrifices so that there would be the budget to have those days both in New York and the East Bay.
Part of the fun of creating the book was making it set in real locations that I was familiar with. That’s something that people have responded to over the years, in the same way that we’ve dedicated a lot of this interview to going through some of the locations. This book…it’s not such a wild original story that is just about the plot and it can take place anywhere. Part of adapting the book involved getting the feel for those two locations that have meant so much to me and my life.