“There’s … such a fulfilling aspect to writing something and creating words on a page that move people, and then translating that onto screen and making it something visual that is tangible and that people can watch,” remarked Justin Chon in an interview with The Daily Californian. Chon — known as a YouTube personality, actor and director who garnered attention with his first feature film “Gook” in 2017 — has returned as a director with his sophomore feature “Ms. Purple.”
“Ms. Purple” puts Kasie’s (Tiffany Chu) life on display. During the day, she’s a karaoke hostess, or “doumi,” chosen salaciously by businessmen to pretend to enjoy constant degradation and drink after drink. It’s the only lucrative way to eventually come back home to her father, who is bedridden but alive. When her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) mysteriously reenters her life to help her care for their dad, it rubs their lives together once more, leaving the question of whether it can ever be shared again.
“I think art is important. The more truthful they are to our own cultures (the more) they tend to be universal, and I think that a lot of intolerance or racism isn’t because people are evil. I really just think that it’s lack of exposure. Film can help people of different ethnic backgrounds to understand that we’re a lot more alike than different,” Chon explained. His perspective of film as an exchange of learning experiences guides his filmmaking process. What he explores, excavates and examines becomes a treasure for audiences to find as well.
The concept of universality is essential to fully engage with Chon’s film. Rather than broadening its story with vaguely relatable human experiences, it ironically begins with zoning in on a specific Korean American family in order to reach beyond itself. With her hanbok — a traditional Korean dress — that one of the karaoke men bought her, Kasie becomes Ms. Purple, significantly attaching the film to Korean culture wherein “the color purple … is the color of mourning,” according to Chon. “The Hanbok … symbolizes … what we are bound by from the old country and what … traditions … we should carry forward as Asian Americans and what should we leave behind.”
With this ethnic framework, “Ms. Purple” contributes to the discourse surrounding media representation and acknowledgment of Hollywood’s shameful history with portraying people of color. “What’s crazy is that I don’t think anybody ever questioned whether (Chu is) Korean. Nobody does. I think actually most people are surprised, like, ‘What, she’s not?’ I think that shows: what is a Korean supposed to look like, what is a Chinese supposed to look like, and what is an American supposed to look like? That’s my biggest sort of question,” Chon said.
“It’s obviously a film with Asian Americans, but it’s definitely more than that. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about a family’s struggle. Everyone’s struggle. And I think it doesn’t matter what culture or background that you come from. Because you know, I’m not Korean American, but I was able to relate to what Kasie went through and what she felt,” Chu said. Although “Ms. Purple” starts with a Korean American premise, the film transforms into a communal story for viewers.
The film digs deep into the theme of the family, revealing the volatile nature of siblings. “I just think that dynamic of a brother and sister are so different from brother and brother or sister and sister. You know, I just haven’t seen it in film explored too much,” Chon said. As the film delves further into these relationships, it enlarges its capacity to deliver its message to audiences.
“Ms. Purple” reaches this depiction in a tumultuous period in Kasie’s life. “I think having an anchor for Kasie, which was family, really helped. Staying true to her spirit took a lot of discipline and it was definitely challenging,” Chu said. “I’m very fortunate that I get to act and play a part of Kasie’s story, but there are also other people who live in that reality, so it’s really giving the respect and honor to the … struggle she’s going through.”
Kasie’s life functions through transitions. Each transitional phase permeates into the next one, from the departure of her mother at a young age to her older brother running away, and finally, to her father’s severe illness. Adapting becomes perfunctory, but instead of making Kasie stronger, it leaves her exposed as she moves across her various identities. It is this pivotal characterization that allows “Ms. Purple” to jump from Korean American to purely human.
It’s clear that this focused vision Chon and Chu had for “Ms. Purple” birthed a personal connection to the film for them, and it is their hope that viewers can find a similar intimacy. They both wish to continue diving into the world of filmmaking and its collaborative nature through all the roles involved, as they don’t want to be boxed in. But, for now, the attention is on “Ms. Purple.” According to Chu, “it’s a film that opens eyes to what’s wrong, what is and what could be.”