Justin Chon: I AM Ms. Purple
Justin Chon is no stranger to Sundance. In 2017, as one of only a handful of Korean-American directors in the US—he wrote, directed, produced and starred in his second feature film Gook, which premiered to critical acclaim—and won the festival’s NEXT Audience Award.
In two short years, Chon returned to Sundance to premiere his third feature film, Ms. Purple, set in Koreatown, Los Angeles; an intimate family drama centred on an estranged brother and sister, who reunite and try to mend their wounded histories with each other, and take care of their dying father during his final days.
The sister, Kaisie (Tiffany Chu) is a Karaoke hostess who struggles to maintain her own identity in amongst the transactional relationships of both her family and the rich business men she serves—both thieves and mirrors for her muted self-esteem caught between the desires of broken men.
Exploring the complex dynamics of sibling relationships and their perceived filial duties to the inherited values of their culture, Chon’s third feature moves us into the slower pace and intimacy of a moving psychological portrait, in which, both silence and hyper-real colours frame the often difficult fragrance of lost identities, borne of personal compromise.
Chon describes Ms. Purple as a unseen glimpse into the world of a Korean-Asian families and their complex humanity, that moves beyond the often Westernised tropes of Asians as comical, cute, and indistinct from each other.
While the authentic treatment of Asian stories has existed widely in Asian cinema, Chon and other Asian-American Sundance director’s such as Lulu Wang, remain the rare few to authentically portray the American-Asian immigrant experience in American Cinema.
In the era of #metoo and #inclusion, Ms Purple succeeds in lending a cinematic lense to underrepresented minorities and a female protagonist outside of the Crazy Rich Asians mystique—in this case, a poor Korean-American family struggling to maintain their dignity on the tendrils of a culture they left, which clings onto them as deftly as their feeling of being outsiders in America.
Chon’s early career began in acting. He played Eric Yorkie in Twilight and New Moon, became a Youtube star, and played Peter Wu in the Disney Channel film Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, and Tony Lee in the Nickelodeon sitcom Just Jordan.
Justin Chon interview - Conan O’Brien
He went on to be cast as the lead in crime drama Revenge of the Green Dragons, executive produced by Martin Scorsese and starred as Sid Park, in independent film Seoul Searching directed by Benson Lee, which also premiered at Sundance in 2015.
Today, as a Korean-American auteur in his own right, Chon’s contemporary, and challenging depictions also carry an air of urban LA-chic with subtle referential tempos reminiscent of Spike Lee, La Haine, and Wong Kar Wai.
Displaced characters, tribalism, LA riot films—the Asian American immigrant story, is rarely addressed. Chon’s deft ability to bring the stories of these unheard misfits to the big screen—in his own independent and authentic voice—is what true diversity and representation should look like.
Chon sat down with I AM FILM after the premiere of Ms. Purple to discuss his one-of-a-kind insight into working within all tiers of the industry; alongside Hollywood’s A-list to championing and choosing to carve an independent filmmaking path of his own.
Justin, congratulations on the premiere of your film. How are you feeling?
I feel positive. The reactions from the audiences have been amazing. They really connect with the film. I think it’s just been such a great reception and that makes me excited.
Why did you choose a female protagonist and how did you connect with her as a male director?
I did a screening of Gook in Union Square, and after a Q&A, these two Asian girls came up to me saying, “You talk about representation and you talk about diversity. But how come there wasn’t a single female Asian American in your film?”
And I said, “Well, this film, in particular, was about toxic masculinity; what happens when people and communities don’t communicate with each other.” There’s a lot of angst and anger about this.
I said, “Don’t worry, I am going to make one for you guys. You’ve got to give me a little bit of time. This is only my second film.”
I took their comment to heart. So, when I was sitting down to write this, the easier choice would be to write it from the brother’s point of view. But, I thought it was a good opportunity to make the protagonist a female. I learned a tonne. It was really hard. There was a lot failing and trying to figure out why it’s not working.
You have had a unique career trajectory. From starting off in acting, quite young—it’s rare for an actor of Asian-descent in the US, to do as well as you have. And then, to suddenly switch to directing, that’s a huge risk. What motivated that choice?
In the beginning, I was in all the Disney and Nickelodeon stuff and in films like Twilight. I always wanted to be an ‘Asian Sean Penn’. That’s what I aspired to be. But those roles aren’t available. I got one shot in this film with Wayne Kramer, called Crossing Over. I thought it was my big break.
Sean Penn was in it, Harrison Ford, Ellis Eve, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd and so on, and I was the lead of my storyline. I finally had a chance to show my dramatic chops. But, the Weinstein company shelved it for about three years and didn’t really give it a proper release.
The normal roles I get are the ‘best friend’, the ‘sidekick’, and then, I did the whole Twilight thing, which was cool. A great experience, but not really the direction I wanted to go in.
I thought, “What does my future look like if I just keep acting?” I could stick it out and maybe it could change. But life is short.
One time I was on set, this director was having trouble blocking a scene. I made a suggestion because I totally saw what the problem was and he stopped me and he said “Wait, what do you do?” And I said “What do you mean?” And he said “What are you paid here to do?” And I was like “Act”. And he said “Exactly, so shut up and let the director direct.”
In that moment, I was like “I am so sick of this shit.”
And you know what? I am better off serving my community by sharing stories that I have a very specific perspective on.
Tell me about your first Sundance hit Gook
Specifically, for Gook, it was a 25th anniversary. It was a great time to make a reflective film about that time. I knew no one was going to do a story about the LA riots from the perspective of the Koreans who were the most affected.
Gook Official Trailer - © Samuel Goldwyn Films 2017
So, that was a real turning point for me because I thought, “This is not for me, it’s for my community. If I don't do it, no one else will do this.”
Do you think things have changed since Crazy Rich Asians?
It just happened, so it’s hard to tell. I do see how they are like trying to open up casting and be more open to things. But it takes time for people to learn and understand.
That’s my job: to make films that bring compassion and empathy towards our community. That’s my purpose.
I think Jon Chu, James Wong, and Justin Lin; they are really great at the studio thing. I think I am so well served in this space of intimate films. They will do that and I am the counter programming to that—at least for now.
You said you have a dream of being the ‘Asian Sean Penn’, do you still want that?
Yes, absolutely. I am going to continue acting. But it’s just that it will more likely happen in something that I write, than something I’m cast in.
How did you break into the industry? Considering the naive version of you coming into Hollywood, what do you wish you had known?
I think I wouldn’t have wished to know anything, because if I would have known, I wouldn’t have done it. If I knew how hard it was going to be and how unfair it was going to be, it would be too hard. I had to kind of be delusional to do it. I am thankful.
The only way I would have understood this was by experience. Even if someone told it to me, I wouldn’t really understand what they were saying. But I wouldn’t have to wanted to know any of that stuff. You have to be a bit of a psycho.
Tell me more about that, how did the beginning of your career look like?
I was just tenacious. In the beginning, I would crash auditions. People would tell me This isn’t how things work. You can’t do this. I would go to a manager’s office and bring my headshot and say I have a meeting with so and so and they would say I didn’t.
So I’d be like “Okay, can I at least leave my headshot here?” I would find out where their offices were. I’d go to theatre auditions and I wouldn’t have an audition. I would just sit in. I’d do this thing where I am like, “30 seconds. Give me 30 seconds. If I am horrible, you can kick me out.” It’s not the right way to go about it, but it’s the only way.
When did you finally break out?
The first time I got my first speaking role was like one of those things where I kept coming back and they were like “You need to stop doing that.” But they actually ended up calling me in for a job.
The beginning was hard. I did everything and anything that was necessary to get in. And then I fell into the whole Disney and Nickelodeon thing, and that was great. I got to practice on those sets. And I got to do the camera technique and all that stuff, that I didn’t have experience with, in a safe place where I can take big risks because what’s was going to happen?
What’s your next project?
It is a story that needs to be told for a community that experiences a lot of injustice. International adoption can be a good thing, but there can be human trafficking. Money is being exchanged.
A lot of these parents that bring these kids over decide they don’t want them, and they put them in the foster care systems. When the systems fail, these kids become adults and they are finding loopholes to deport them, after 40 years of life.
About the filmmaker
Actor, Director, Writer
Justin Chon was born in Orange County, California, where he learned to drag race Honda Civics. His previous film, Gook, won the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Chon was also the winner of the Kiehl's Someone to Watch Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. He loves long walks on the beach and reading romance novels by candlelight. [Bio courtesy of the Sundance Institute]