Justin Chon Gives Color To The Asian-American Experience With 'Ms. Purple' [Interview]

"Palm trees are not native to California, did you know?"

Young-Il (James Kang) tells his young daughter Kasie that in Ms. PurpleJustin Chon's gauzy, contemplative follow-up to his charged 2017 darling Gook. Newcomer Tiffany Chu is the titular Ms. Purple, a young woman named Kasie who refuses to put her father in hospice even as he lies comatose in his death bed. When his caretaker suddenly quits, Kasie turns to her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee), who reluctantly returns home to take care of the father who kicked him out.

Ms. Purple is a story of people who "feel like they've been left behind," Chon told /Film in an interview in New York.. First-generation Korean immigrants whose parents tried to make a new life in America, Kasie and Carey struggle to exist on the fringes of society — Kasie working as a "doumi girl," a hostess at a Korean karaoke bar, Carey straddling homelessness while loitering at an internet cafe. "The world kept turning, they stood still," Chon said. In effect, they are the palm tree: long, exotic plants swaying in a wind that is not their own. Uprooted.

It's a story that Chon is all-too familiar with. Growing up in Irvine, California, Chon knew people who personally experienced this phenomenon. "A lot of people who come from a mother country, whether it be Korea or Malaysia or wherever, the home country continues to progress and advance. When people come [to America], they're kind of stuck in the mindset of when they left that country," he said. Like his last film, Ms. Purple, which Chon co-wrote with Chris Dinh, is a deeply personal story with a distinctly Asian-American perspective that Chon is becoming known for.

Splayed casually on a couch while tossing his phone in one hand, Chon spoke almost in a mumble, parsing his words carefully as he mused about the long road he's taken to become the rising arthouse director he's being hailed as. It was a far cry from his more outsized early performances that he is best known for — his breakout comic relief character in Twilight, his starring role in the Hangover-for-teens comedy 21 and Over. But in 2017, Chon impressed Sundance audiences with a black-and-white drama about two Korean-American brothers navigating the first day of the 1992 L.A. race riots. The film won him the Sundance Film Festival's Next Audience Award and renewed attention as a rising Asian-American independent director. But despite a few approaches for big "studio gigs," Chon's motivation to make films remains: is it "truthful"?

"Does it bring empathy to my community?" Chon asked. "It needs to show how we're co-existing in this country, and it also needs to show how we're all much more alike than different."

With two vastly different, but eerily similar films under his belt, Chon may have already achieved just that.

How has the reception and anticipation been for Ms. Purple compared to your last film, Gook, which was a big hit at Sundance?

I'd say because of the last film there was more anticipation and there was a lot more comparing films. But a lot of excitement, and this is a much more intimate film. The way we presented the film with a little bit of a different approach. But it's been wonderful. People have been very gracious, we've been getting amazing reviews. And people are responding to the film, so I really can't complain.

Speaking of more intimate, not to make comparisons to your last film, but both of your two recent films have touched on issues of family. Filial piety being a central conflict in this one. Is this an element that you have found yourself drawn to?

Yes, because I'm Asian. I wanted to explore the dynamics of a family that's very [familiar]. A story that all of us know, in terms of them being immigrants. Also the American Dream when it's not a success story really interests me. I'm very drawn to filial piety, and it's something I deal with on a daily basis with my parents. I have a sister, and that's sort of an inspiration. So I wanted to explore the brother-sister relationship as well.

How did you come up with the story for Ms. Purple when you co-wrote the script with Chris Dinh?

With my younger sister, I wanted to tell a story specifically about a brother and sister, which has a really special type of dynamic. It's different from brothers or sisters. And I wanted to tell a story set in Koreatown, Los Angeles...a place that's becoming very much gentrified, just like everywhere else in the country. This story is about people who kind of feel like they've been left behind. The world kept turning, they stood still. I have a lot of friends who grew up there and I know people who [experienced this]. It's kind of a strange phenomenon but a lot of people who come from a mother country, whether it be Korea or Malaysia or wherever, the home country continues to progress and advance. When people come [to America], they're kind of stuck in the mindset of when they left that country. It's really weird. So all those things, and also cultural baggage that you bring or you leave behind. What you bring with you, that's what...the dress and the trees symbolize. They're not meant to be in California. Are we meant to be here? Who's really supposed to be here and thrive?

The literal uprooting.

Yeah. But all those things I really wanted to explore in this film. We don't have a big studio or something behind this, so we had a lot of freedom for me to go through those themes and do that.

Speaking of the dress, which is a purple traditional Koreak hanbok, can you tell me what the meaning of purple is in this film?

In Korean culture, it's the color of mourning. That's why it's called Ms. Purple, she's mourning her father. So that's why the color purple is important in this film. And I love purple. As for the hanbok...dresses constrict you, they make you walk a certain way, act a certain way, so I wanted to show that it symbolizes the old country and she needs to shed herself of that. But in real life I love hanboks, I was just using it as a metaphor to symbolize what we bring with us from the old country. Obviously my stance on the whole karaoke stuff is also like I'm asking, "Is this old tradition?" Because you know in Asia, whether it's China, Japan, or Korea, they have some form of that still. It's still very prevalent. So I'm asking, is that still necessary?

Yeah I've heard of, for example, clubs where they parade girls in front of men and they rank girls. And this is within Asia and in places like Koreatown, where it's still going on.

Yeah, and that kind of practice feels like a relic, it feels old, it feels archaic. I can't believe it still exists, it's kind of weird. But for me, I think I'm just grown up and built a family and stuff, so it might also be me. I don't know if I'm really speaking for all Korean people or all Asian people, but I think it's done.

Do you think too that it's that Asian-American divide? Because it's something that's still going on in Korea, Asia today, but coming from an Asian-American perspective you're able to step back from it?

It's a difficult question, because it's hard for me to separate myself from myself. But I would say, yeah living in America it's just different from Asia. Different values and beliefs, so it does influence it. It's so prevalent in Asia still, so my guess would be yeah.

I feel like this movie is so distinctly Asian-American. Do you think your Asian-American identity influenced your approach on this film?

There's no way for me to portray it any differently. These are all identity questions, and it's just my perspective. It's inextricable, I cannot separate [them]. The approach, I think, is inevitably Asian-American. But proudly. And I think any film I do, even if it was a studio film, would have that spin on it. Just like if Spike Lee makes Inside Man, it's still very much black even if it's a bank heist film. So I think this approach that you're touching on would be present in anything I do.

I want to go back briefly to the color, because your last film was in black and white, but Ms. Purple is unsurprisingly all about color. And I like that the purple wasn't the most prominent color scheme, it was more subtle throughout, with the neon lights of the karaoke club, and the warm natural lighting. How did you come about this color scheme and did you have any influences in creating this sort of gauzy portrait of LA?

Purple, we obviously needed that in the film. And the complimentary color to purple is green, which is the color of money. So if you notice in the blacks, there's a lot of green tint, in the daylight there's a green tint. That inspiration came from Hirokazu Kore-eda's film Nobody Knows. And you know the train at the end is purple, but there's a lot of fucking green. So that was the biggest inspiration. In terms of everything else, a lot of it is naturally motivated. If there are a lot of blues it's because it's twilight, or dawn. We shot a lot at sunset so that's where those colors are naturally motivated. Then the karaoke has its own sort of vibe, a club-ish vibe, we wanted it to feel gritty and somewhat emulate film. If I had the money, I would've shot it on 16mm. When we get the films back from the distributors later on, I'll probably do film transfers for both Gook and Ms. Purple [both of which were shot on digital].

So you'd want both on 16mm?

Yeah, I would've shot both on 16mm if I could've, but we're broke.

In your last film, you starred in addition to directing it. Why did you decide not to act in this film?

Because I thought it was a great opportunity to put someone on the map. Teddy [Lee] I felt offered something so special that he stood out for me, and I thought was very exciting. Also as a director, I want people to know that I'm not trying to be in everything I do and that I want to be seen strictly also as a director. And I think the best way to do that is to direct something you're not in. Like Joel Edgerton, right now, he's basically in a lot of shit that he directs, but he's also very talented. He'll probably not be in stuff that he directs. Especially for an Asian-American man, I don't want to take [all the roles]. Part of my purpose is to create our own stars, so it didn't just feel right for me to be in it. Even though a lot of people have said, "I could have totally seen you in that role," he did it better than I could have played it, to be honest.

I have to say I watched a lot of Wong Fu videos going through college. I know you're big in the YouTube community, but I'm glad you didn't go with someone in that community, someone recognizable, because I think unknown stars Teddy Lee and Tiffany Chu lent a lot of that authenticity to their roles. Was that your intention in casting unknowns?

A thousand percent. Like I said, one of my goals was to put two people [in the spotlight], to discover two people. Part of that is creating our own stars. And a barrier of entry in this industry is experience. So if you don't get the experience you can't get better, if you can't get better, you don't get experience. It's a catch-22 in entertainment. There's so many talented people, but it also takes me knowing how to work with them too, because it's their first movie. Of course I've got to put the time in and help them get there, can't just expect them to show up and kill it. That doesn't happen. But I think that's part of my responsibility to my community.

You've come a long way since the days of YouTube, and also Twilight and 21 and Over. At what point did you decide to make that switch from comedy and onscreen roles to directing more artful indie dramas?

I remember when I first started out [acting], I did this green screen movie called Year of the Dog that never came out. And [I told] the guy who wrote it, "Yeah man, I kind of want to write or whatever," and he was just like, "You've just got to do it." And I think it took longer for me to start making my own stuff, but I think it was always in me, and I had a desire.

And I've made tons of shorts that I'll never show anyone and I'll never put them on YouTube. But I will say, meeting those YouTube guys, it was really exhilarating. I learned a lot from them because they just didn't give a fuck. They just were constantly making stuff, and they didn't care what people thought because, in the beginning, they liked to do it... And then I met [Kevin Wu] and Ryan Higa and all those guys, and I saw how much fun they were having, but also underestimated it. They kept telling me to start a YouTube and I didn't want to, I just hung out with them. And then finally they convinced me and I only did it for a year. It was a lot of hard work. But the process of that, I was like, "Well, I'm making stuff." I think the natural progression was, I never wanted to make skits. Or if it was going to be a skit, it was going to have a beginning, middle, and end, and it was much more artful.

Then I started to get burned out by the industry, the business of acting and not having any say in how the project turns out. And I had a string of bad experiences on set or auditions, and I just went, "You know, fuck this, I'm just going to make my own shit." I had this horrible audition that I [wrote about in] an op-ed for NBC Asian America, but in the article I said, "But, where do we go from here?" I said I'm going to make this film called Gook, it's about brothers set in 1992 during the first day of the LA riots, and I'm writing it here so I can be held accountable. In the op-ed, I proclaimed it. And I was like, "Okay, well now I have to go make it."

But after my first film which I made with [Wu], Man Up, after that I told myself I would never make another film again. It was so hard and I underestimated it, but it was my film school. But then when all these other experiences happened after Man Up, I just had to step back into the ring and give it another shot...but [this time] doing exactly what I want to make. 

Have you found that in the aftermath of Crazy Rich Asians' success and indie films like Searching and The Farewell, that more opportunities are opening up for Asian-American filmmakers? Or is it still kind of slow going?

I think we create our own opportunities. I was really happy with what Gook was able to do. It was kind of one of the first out the gate, and a lot of people were surprised because they were like, "How the fuck did he make this film?" Everything that's come after, I'm stoked, I'm really happy.

But yeah, I think [Crazy Rich Asians] has created more opportunities and more openness. I just don't want executives to use it as just a way to sell something. Like I've been offered studio gigs and I go [talk to them], and I go, "Oh, you just want to buy my street cred. You don't really care about what I have to say and my perspective, you just want to use the Asian angle. Because the community supports me, you're buying that, and I'm not selling." But good on people who are using it to their advantage. And it's happening, people are telling their stories. It's much better than when I started acting 18 years ago, way better. And it's not supposed to change overnight, it's impossible, that's just not how the world works. We just have to be patient, but we have to stay diligent.

 What kind of projects do you hope to do in the future? Do you see yourself taking on a studio gig or do you want to continue carving out that arthouse indie niche?

I don't see it as studio or indie arthouse, I see it was stories I want to tell. That's the only way I see it. I'm in preparation right now for my next film, I'm making it with a company called Macro — they did Mudbound and Sorry to Bother You — and we start shooting next month in New Orleans. It's a bigger budget film but it's about a Korean-American adoptee that's getting deported. It's a story that I think is important, but it's a bigger budget and it's with players that are much more traditional. But I don't see it as "now I'm doing a more traditional film," I just have to deal with different people, and the process might be a little different. But at the end of the day the product and the perspective might be the same. So whether it's a superhero film or it's arthouse, my guiding North Star is: is it truthful? [My goal for a film] is it needs to bring empathy to my community, it needs to show how we're co-existing in this country, and it also needs to show how we're all much more alike than different. So I'm not really trying to say, "If it's a studio film, I'm not doing it." If it's right, if it aligns with my values, then let's talk about it. But for now, I do like the autonomy of independent film because there's less negotiation with the artistic vision, which I value greatly.


Ms. Purple is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.