Nothing Will Stop Justin Chon From Telling Asian American Stories

justin chon CAAM40 Storyteller
“What I care about is bringing empathy to us, so all my films have a very strong Asian element."

Justin Chon doesn’t believe in downtime. He starred in Wayne Wang’s 2019 film Coming Home Again (a CAAM production), and also in 2019 he released a film he directed and co-wrote, Ms. Purple, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature Competition at the Houston International Film Festival, and was a nominee at CAAMFest and Sundance.

And now, in spite of the widespread shutdown of most industries due to the coronavirus, he and his crew have been busy from their homes finishing post-production for his latest film, Blue Bayou, which he wrote, directed, and starred in alongside Alicia Vikander. 

All three films, and his earlier work, depict the dynamics of Asian American families. Coming Home Again is based on a poignant 1995 Chang-Rae Lee essay in the New Yorker magazine about a Korean American son who returns to his family to cook the food of his childhood for his mother, who’s dying of stomach cancer. Ms. Purple is coincidentally about a Korean American sister and brother who rebuild their relationship as the brother returns home to help care for their dying father. 

“Directing and writing is very, very intense,” Chon says in an interview. “It takes a few years of your life instead of acting.”

For acting gigs, “I just show up to the studio and they tell me what to say. On the flip side of that you don’t really have a voice and you’re a pawn to a writer or director or you feel like you’re not being heard.”

Working with Wayne Wang, whom he calls the “godfather” of Asian American cinema for pioneering indie films like the 1982 Chan Is Missing and Hollywood hits like 1993’s The Joy Luck Club was a pleasure, and an unexpected one. “I had already shot my film (Ms. Purple) and got the call from Wayne about a story featuring a dying parent,” he says. “It was a really cool exercise. It was exciting to work with a veteran like that and lean on him and make his art.”

Justin Chon, Ms. Purple
Justin Chon on the set of “Ms. Purple”

Now, the 39-year-old Chon, who broke into the Hollywood scene as an Asian American student in the Twilight franchise, is focused on Blue Bayou, which was acquired by Focus Features in early July. The film is about Korean adoptee deportation issues. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the need to shelter-at-home hasn’t stopped Chon from finishing Blue Bayou. “The virus has been a horrific thing for the film community, especially because all productions have been stopped,” he writes in an email. “HOWEVER, it has not stopped me from making my art.” 

He’s been working remotely with his colorist to nail down the color and his composer “to finish the score, and we have been sending everything back and forth through email.”

He’s also “working on a variety of other projects in the script and development phase. We are artists. Nothing can stop us apart from DEATH.”

Chon is a triple-threat as writer, director, and actor. Even more, if you count his media brand on his now-dormant YouTube channel and his membership in the parody (very good as well as funny) K-Pop band Boys Generally Asian (BgA), which was formed by YouTuber Ryan Higa. But asked if he considers himself any one talent in particular, he says simply, “I’m an artist.”

He understands that he also happens to be an Asian American artist who has a platform to promote the stories of his community. “I really think of myself as an artist that tries to do (stories with) specificity. What I care about is bringing empathy to us, so all my films have a very strong Asian element to it.

“I’m Asian American and yes, I am identified by that, and I think that’s something to be proud of instead of shying away from that.”

He’s held up his Asian American pride even if it meant he didn’t get certain jobs. 

“I made that decision, a long time ago when I first started acting,” he says, recall recalling a part in a  cell phone commercial that he regrets. him “A bunch of posers like faux gangster guys go collect fees from people. And at the audition, you’re just trying to get work. So I dressed up and I went in and I used an accent. And it wasn’t even a specific one, it was just like a fake Asian accent, and then I got the job.

“And then I started to do the job and then in the middle of it I got really embarrassed and really ashamed I was very ashamed about doing that.”

In the end, Chon left the shoot, and never played a fake accent again just to get a role. 

Justin Chon at CAAMFest
L-R: Justin Chon, “Seoul Searching” Director Benson Lee, actress Jessica Van, CAAM Festival Director Masashi Niwano, and CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong at CAAMFest Opening Night in 2015

That decision ultimately led to Chon’s 2017 triple-threat (writer, direct, actorplus executive producer) feature film, Gook, about the friendship between two Korean American brothers and a young African American girl, set during the backdrop of the post-Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. “I put my money where my mouth is,” Chon says. 

Gook was just cited by popular YouTubers The Fung Brothers for its depiction of hate crimes against Asian Americans, and how the same is happening now with the fear and frustration caused by the coronavirus, so the film’s themes still ring true. 

Because of his well-received indie films and screen profile, in the post-Fresh Off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe Hollywood, Chon now has leverage as a writer, director and actor. Things have changed. “I go to a lot of meetings and talk to people and everybody’s genuinely interested in hearing our stories, which was not the case (before),” he says. 

Justin Chon
Illustration by Resi Bhaskoro

“I think what we do with that opportunity is very important because, you know, there’s space for all of it.” The film industry has space for the big budget blockbusters, and there’s also room, he says for his more intimate kind of art. 

“You know, let’s make something of some significance as well, not just entertainment. Entertainment is the goal, it’s the purpose of it all. But at the same time, it’s like, well you have a platform. You have your soapbox and you can say something that’ll make a difference.”

Gil Asakawa is a journalist ( ) and author of The Toy Book (Knopf, 1991) and Being Japanese American (Stone Bridge Press, 2nd edition 2004). He’s currently working on Tabemasho! a history of Japanese food in America, for 2021 publication. 

Check throughout the year for more featured storytellers and to see more of artist
Resi Baskhoro’s custom illustrations of these creators who are shaping the future of Asian America.


[Editor’s Note: The article has been updated for accuracy and clarity. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Blue Bayou is based on a true story.]