Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 14.11: Justin Chon on the Making of “Ms. Purple”

A woman looks off into the distance in a moody bar, while an Asian American man turns toward her face.
"Ms. Purple."
"Another thing I deal with in the film is what do we bring, what traditions, what cultural elements do we bring from the old country, and what do we leave behind? What's healthier to leave behind and what should we bring with us? What moral standards and everything is healthy to keep?" - Justin Chon

Annie Proulx famously expanded a moment of empathy for a lonely old cowboy seen at a rural Wyoming bar into the 1997 short story Brokeback Mountain. Ang Lee won Best Director for his treatment of the short story in 2006. I was reminded of the ways compassion, deep relatedness, and insight inform writing and filmmaking when watching Justin Chon’s third feature film, Ms. Purple (CAAMFest37, due to be released September 20th, 2019 in the San Francisco Bay Area), starring Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee, both delivering fantastic performances.

Our most powerful early relationships are with our parents and siblings, closely followed by peers. Aging can return us to the cycle of relatedness to family, friends and community, or foster loneliness as relationships recede. Our compassion waxes and wanes with the quality of our relationships, and also our ability to internalize and understand relationships. Ms. Purple, like all great films, reveals the gritty, tender human core in a world to which many of us of us are not privy, and allows viewers to expand their sensitivity to vulnerability and human struggle against failures of compassion from family to systemic. We also see, in Tiffany Chu’s incredible feature debut performance as Kasie, a riveting portrayal of a young Asian American woman struggling to care for her comatose father who raised her and her brother largely alone, while finding a sense of herself as a young woman. In broad strokes, this caregiving-while-struggling-for-autonomy- and-community scenario is emblematic of the experience of many Asian Americans.

I chatted with Justin Chon via phone.

-Ravi Chandra

A Korean American man holds a microphone.
Director Justin Chon.

Justin, congratulations on your film. What gravitates you towards directing and writing, as opposed to acting? And what was your directorial style here – was the film scripted, or was any of it improvisational?

The biggest thing is that I have a lot more control over the final product. It’s much more of an extension of what I wanna say as opposed to being a part of someone else’s project. I think creatively, it’s just a lot more fulfilling and I love acting and I love the whole team aspect of it but as director I get to bring my vision alive and I don’t have to ask for permission from people on how it all turns out. It was completely scripted but the way I worked with these actors, is I really did a lot of improv in terms of getting them comfortable, telling them kind of what are the key pillars of the scene were and I would guide them. It’s funny because it ends up being pretty close to the script. But they feel like their own words.

Your film is obviously sympathetic to Kasie as a vulnerable woman, who despite great difficulty, manages to care for others. Both Ms. Purple and Gook feature pivotal female characters. Justin, where did this story come from and what are you channeling when you write and direct women characters? 

So I have a younger sister who is three years younger than me and, you know, growing up we had an interesting relationship. We haven’t always gotten along. And then so I really wanted to tell a story about a brother and sister specifically. I don’t think it’s really represented in film as much but I thought it was a good opportunity to write for a female, and to tell it from her perspective and, you know, I think that how I wrote for her is obviously I talked to my sister and I talked to a lot of women about and I interviewed a lot of women that are in this profession.

The biggest thing I learned was that at the first draft, I think I was trying to make it be fair. So if something bad happens to her, something good needs to happen to her. And the problem with that is that it doesn’t represent real life. It’s not authentic, it’s not real life. Life don’t happen like that. I think it was actually a disservice to women because it doesn’t accurately represent what they go through. I think part of being a woman is that there’s a lot of, you know, life isn’t fair. Given the mere fact that…as men, we don’t gotta carry babies and all that. So, yeah, I mean, you know, it took a while to get the script down and a lot of drafts to make sure that I felt it was representative and also rang true. So that’s sort of the biggest compliment I’ve gotten… is people told them that they feel like…it felt like a woman wrote it. So that’s the biggest compliment I could get.

I saw Kasie’s transformation in at least three areas, so important for Asian Americans, women in particular. One, in asking for help. (Asian Americans underutilize mental health and other social services.) Second, in standing up for herself and others, to the point of embodying a near-vengeful, but ultimately liberating, animus. (In the sense of Jungian psychology, the more aggressive “masculine” part of a woman’s psyche.) Thirdly, in feeling comfortable and confident enough to open up to the gifts of masculine kindness, in relating to Octavio. (This is a question of basic trust between genders, especially tenuous in the #MeToo era.) Could you both remark on relating to these issues in making the film and in portraying Kasie?

Yeah. She’s an Asian American, the three things that you pointed out, it’s pretty prevalent problems in our community. I mean, this film does have a lot of elements of mental health. My mother, she had a difficult time sometimes with a lot of these things and it’s been really frustrating for me and my sister. So it rings very true and honest to the experience of Asian American older folks, Asian American women. So I just wanted to make sure that I touched on these things and it wasn’t just surface, like, comedy stuff. I think a lot of Asian films just try to make light of a lot of shit, which is okay. Sometimes it’s good to just have entertainment but, you know, I wanted it to feel real and relatable. So, like, if somebody watch it, they might see a little bit of themselves in Kasie and that maybe we should be a little bit closer to our problems.

Reviewers have remarked both about the film’s Asian or Korean American specificity, and also its universality. Could you speak to the specificity regarding the Korean American experience? How do you think the experience of immigrating from an interdependent society based on jeong, the deep relatedness between selves, to an individualistic, all-too-often racist majority white culture impacted the first and second generations portrayed in your film? In what ways have you been consciously evocative of immigration trauma in your films?

A big theme in this film is filial piety, one’s duty to one’s parents, and that’s inherited from the old country. And another big thing is that what I explore in the theme in this film is that there’s a big element of collateral baggage that you inherit from your parents and that sometimes it can be really unhealthy because sometimes it’s an unnecessary burden or sometimes it’s unnecessarily a weight on your life when, you know, maybe your parents wouldn’t even want that.

Another thing I deal with in the film is what do we bring, what traditions, what cultural elements do we bring from the old country, and what do we leave behind? What’s healthier to leave behind and what should we bring with us? What moral standards and everything is healthy to keep?

Hirozaku Kore-eda said, of making Still Walking, “I wanted to express the memories all jumbled up inside me, in a fictionalized way.” Of course, your film is not autobiographical, but in what ways is this film personal to you?

It’s personal to me because I always wanted to tell a story about Koreatown and Los Angeles. I grew up going there my whole life and I don’t think that people do it justice. They always just show the party aspect or…I don’t know what they do. But for this, you know, I really wanted to show the people who are from there that grew up there and I feel like a lot of people I know, sometimes they feel like they got left behind because it’s such a bubble over there. So it feels like the world kept turning and they stood still. I think that that was what was personal and also the brother/sister aspect and also us, me and my sister had to come together for my mother a few times so, you know, I mean the brother/sister relationship is such a specific type. It’s different from brother/brother and sister/sister because of the gender difference. The communication sometimes can be off.

Related to that, I think as a man, I vacillate between wanting to beat up the bad guys, care for the wounded, or make some kind of art that tries to get at the root of the problems that all parties face. How do you see Ms. Purple

These are real people. It’s a universal story. It’s not just for Asian Americans. Everybody gotta deal with that. Everybody gotta deal with family. We are united by as a community of all races sometimes by some of the struggles we go through. And that’s what I would like people to get out of it. I think right now in this country we all trying to segment each other and say, “This is you, this is me, and we different.” And I think that that is what can be destructive at times because it makes it harder for one of us, all of us to feel like we’re in it together.

Kasie and Carey have backstories which you illuminate in the film, deserving of viewers sympathy. I’m wondering what you both might think of the “toxic” masculine you represent in the men who frequent the doumi (hostess) club. I know that while Asian Americans as a group have lower rates of mental health and substance abuse problems compared to the general population, those who are more “masculine gender conforming” have higher rates. I think that’s associated with family trauma, shame, emotional suppression, difficulty relating to other people in general, and reacting against a majority culture that tends to emasculate Asian men. Do you think about how those men might view your film? Do you think you might ever make a film that is empathetic to this kind of Asian American man? Or is that needed at this time? (Certainly Steve McQueen’s Shame dealt with this territory with a white male lead, and Teddy Lee does a fantastic job in Ms. Purple of portraying Carey, a man traumatized by childhood family issues.)

Hell, no. I ain’t trying to sympathize with that dude. No. That type of behavior and that type of mentality, that needs to die. I would like to explore someone like Teddy (Lee), like Carey. I would like to explore something like that but not Tony. I think sometimes it would be like an artistic challenge for somebody but I don’t care to live in that for a few years.

The musical score was so great – I loved how you used Latin music for tragic/poetic relational sequences, especially Paloma Negra in the climactic sequence. Could you say a bit more about this choice?

Yeah. Kasie’s theme is that sort of melancholic theme, it’s melancholic, repeatable, recognizable melody and it repeats in different ways. And that’s her theme, her internal state. But if you notice, I have old Spanish inspired score with nylon string guitars and that all, all that stuff is because what I’m saying is she need to get out of her own community, her own bubble, in order…you know, she could find support, not just in her own community. She could look outside. And so that music supports that. That’s why she meets Octavio and starts to see that maybe there is a lot outside of this tiny town, this Koreatown. So that’s why the Paloma Negra comes and all that. I love that song and I think that we shouldn’t be limited to our own stereotypical ethnicity’s music, especially in film. You know, I mean, everybody listens to jazz, don’t matter what color you are, and everybody listens to rock. My score and my choice in music really represent that.

Yeah. I like to say the world is medicine so everything out there, you can use it to heal and grow. What are upcoming projects you’re working on?

I’m doing a movie called Blue Bayou and it’s about a Korean American that’s getting deported. He came at the age of three and because of a loophole and paperwork when he got here, ICE found a way, ICE is finding a way to deport. So I’m playing the guy who’s getting deported and I grew up in the South, specifically in Louisiana. (Chon spoke in a New Orleans drawl during the interview to stay in character).

We start filming beginning of next month and I think it’s a beautiful movie and I think it’s a subject that we really need to expose because there is some stuff that I think is just unfair. If you were brought here as a child, you had no choice to come here, and then U.S. citizens adopt you and money was exchanged, I think it’s the government’s responsibility to take care of those children. We wrap by the end of the year and then we’ll see where it go, whether it goes to festival or getting bought by a distributor. I’m not quite sure where it’s gonna end up but I have a lot of hope. We’re making it with MACRO, you know, the company that made Mudbound and Denzel’s Fences and Denzel’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. I wrote, directed, and I’m gonna act in it. But we’ll see how that goes. (Laughs)

All right. Well, fantastic. I look forward to all of that! Thanks so much for your time.

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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. He is giving a series of free/by donation lectures on topics including Asian American men’s and women’s psychology in September and October in Japantown. Read more MOSF blogposts here.