Ms. Purple: Justin Chon’s touching tribute to Asian American siblinghood

The filmmaker returns to the big screen with a gritty drama starring Tiffany Chu.

After his highly acclaimed 2017 film Gook, writer-director Justin Chon returns with his new film,  Ms. Purple, a touching portrait of Asian American siblinghood amidst tradition, familial responsibility, and personal trauma.

The film follows an estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), who returns home to Koreatown to help his sister, Kasie (Tiffany Chu), care for their dying father. Scarred by the painful abandonment from their mother and their upbringing by their father, the two siblings slowly rebuild their broken bond. 

Bringing the role to life

Chu embodies Kasie’s character, a tough yet struggling young woman. In addition to her unhealthy family dynamic and a failing relationship, Kasie also works as a doumi girl, a young hostess paid to spend time with rich businessmen at karaoke. She spends her nights taking MDMA and soju to help make enough money to care for her dying father.

To prepare for the film, the two lead actors spent five weeks together rehearsing, improvising, and traveling around Koreatown, where actor Teddy Lee grew up. For actress Tiffany Chu, she spent most of her alone time listening to music and daydreaming.

“It was a very lonely depressing time for me,” Chu said. “Staying true to Kasie’s spirit took discipline.”

Photo credit: Ante Chen, courtesy of Sundance Institute

When it came to her character, Chu could identify with Kasie’s anchor to her family: “I’m raised by immigrant parents … We grow up with a different mindset and a special sense of connection, loyalty, love (or duty as some like to call it), with our parents. They sacrifice their dreams and we struggle to fulfill them in our own way.”

Ultimately, Chu found the experience to be rewarding: “I’m really appreciative of each and every person who has come up to me … Someone during Q&As said that they wanted to call their dad.”

THE DIRECTOR’S JOURNEY

Ms. Purple also marks Chon’s first feature film with a female protagonist. In his interview with Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung, Chon described the experience as “eye-opening.”

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I always thought I had empathy. But the biggest thing I learned is that life is not fair. And I have to service the storytelling by being honest instead of trying to make, you know, everything fair in the story.”

In the film, Chon also hoped to explore the theme of community: “It might not be as immediate or obvious as you might think. And it might not be of your own ethnicity. Community can be a lot of things … I know we talk a lot about being Asian American and whatnot, but I like to talk about just being in the human race and how we’re all interconnected.”

Natasha Jung, Justin Chon
Photo by: Natriya Chuna

Chon planned on carrying that idea of human connection into his next film with the production company MACRO (known for the 2017 drama Mudbound). The next film is tentatively titled Blue Bayou and centres around deportation in New Orleans.

As for advice to aspiring Asian American filmmakers, Chon advised “starting off in their truth.” He also emphasized the importance of practising and learning: “Get out and do it. And then fail and learn from your mistakes and do it again.”

“I’m constantly just trying to be a sponge and learning from mentors and people who are doing much better than me,” he said, with a laugh.

Ms. Purple arrives in select theatres on September 6th.

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