'Ms. Purple' Director Justin Chon Reflects on the Unifying Possibilities of Film

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Labs

Coming to theaters Friday after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Chon’s third feature follows a sister and brother in Koreatown as they navigate the final days of their terminally ill father.

The ubiquitous palm trees of Los Angeles — lining its beaches, bustling boulevards and residential neighborhoods — become haunting symbols in Justin Chon’s latest family drama, Ms. Purple. The film often cuts between shots of these trees and its Korean American immigrant characters, juxtaposing them. “Palm trees aren’t native to California. They are all planted. I thought that was just a beautiful metaphor, because you wonder: Are we meant to be here?” Chon says. “And yet, we plant our roots here, into the soil of America.”

Set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Ms. Purple tells the story of a brother ("Carey") and sister ("Kasie") as they care for their bedridden and terminally ill father. For Chon, it was important to render Koreatown with life and authenticity, taking into account the neighborhood’s historical identity, cultural baggage and modern functions. There are the big, restless intersections and streets of Koreatown — Olympic and Western, Vermont, 6th Street — the “epicenter” and “lifelines” of Koreatown, as Chon describes them. And there are also its nooks and crannies, where time and life pass in quieter and more private ways. “Locations are just a lot of thinking and a lot of trying to connect things so that it feels like the same world,” Chon says.

This film is the second installment in a trilogy of Korean-American narrative films that Chon is making; the first, Gook, won the NEXT Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. Chon also juggles an acting career: His credits include the Twilight series and Seoul Searching, and he stars in Wayne Wang’s Coming Home Again, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. On the topic of this latest collaboration, Chon gushes about the Joy Luck Club director, someone he refers to as the “godfather of Asian-American cinema and independent filmmaking.”

While a big reason why Chon chose to step behind the camera as a writer-director was to tell stories that brought a better understanding of and empathy toward the Asian-American community, he also acknowledges a wider audience for this film as “there is nothing more universal than death.” Explaining the meaning behind the title and the purple dress that the main character Kasie wears, Chon says, “Purple, in Korean culture, is the color of mourning.”

Chon directs, not just to illuminate and reveal, but also to unify and strengthen. Through his various films, Chon wants to “show how we can co-exist in this country” — something he tries to demonstrate through weaving the stories of other races into his work. Ms. Purple has a “Chicano thread” in it, while Gook is “as much an African-American story as a Korean American one,” drawing inspiration from his father’s own experiences during 1992 Los Angeles riots that emerged after the Rodney King trial verdict. For this article, Chon spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from Mississippi, where he is currently working on his next film (tentatively titled Blue Bayou), which will also touch on interracial issues.

His biggest challenge in making these stories? Money. For both Gook and Ms. Purple, Chon turned to Kickstarter campaigns to cover postproduction costs. His requests for financial support have been enthusiastically met; both times, his Kickstarter campaigns have exceeded their initial goals by more than $25,000. In the case of Ms. Purple, the monthlong push received around $73,000.

Chon was also determined to cast newcomers in his film. Reflecting on his casting goal and what it means for the Asian-American community, he says, “I think something that is lacking is creating our own stars. I really wanted to find two unknown people and put them on the map.” He found his lead, Tiffany Chu, through a call on Facebook, and Teddy Lee through the recommendation of another Korean-American filmmaker, Andrew Ahn (Spa Night). “I asked [Ahn] who he would have hired if he could have but wasn’t right and Teddy was one of them," Chon says. "I immediately thought [Teddy] was special.”

On the importance of a theatrical release in an age where streaming services abound, Chon says, “I grew up in the theater, and I really think that is the way it should be seen.” As a filmmaker whose works have dealt with race, a theatrical release also offers him the opportunity to get a feel for the demographics and diversity of his audience — information that would have been much harder to obtain from a streaming platform. “In the theater, you take one look and it’s like, wow, it’s speaking to many more people than just my own community. It’s like what I said before, about the co-existing part of my filmmaking,” Chon says. “That’s part of the purpose of making these films, to show how much more we are similar than different.”