Ms. Purple: A Conversation with Director Justin Chon and Actress Tiffany Chu

Following his last feature film Gook (2017), director Justin Chon premiered his newest drama,  Ms. Purple, at Sundance this year. A story of two Korean-American siblings in Koreatown, Los Angeles, the story brings us into the lives of Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and Carey (Teddy Lee), as they share the caretaking responsibilities over their comatose father. Kasie pays her bills by working as a hostess at a karaoke bar, directly dealing with the consequences of a toxic, sexist culture. The complexity of family relationships, the struggles of a woman living in a man’s world, and the importance of tradition for immigrants are among the themes explored throughout the film. Asia Pacific Arts spoke with director Justin Chon and actress Tiffany Chu to learn more about these topics, their experience working on the project, and their thoughts on diversity in Asian-American storytelling.

[Spoilers ahead!]

APA: “Ms. Purple” is a story about a family with a complicated past and messy relationships, and I really like the different dynamics between the three main characters, Kasie, Carey, and their father. Justin, you’ve mentioned that you’ve drawn on your own experiences with family as inspiration for this movie. Can you tell us more about how you developed these characters and the way they relate to each other?

Justin: I have a younger sister, and we’re nothing alike. Growing up we fought a lot, but as we got older, we realized all we had was each other. My parents are divorced and we’ve had to deal with a lot of their problems and come together to figure stuff out. It’s funny because the story’s about the dad but between me and my sister, it’s more my mom. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve become closer and more mature with the way we deal with each other. I really wanted to tell a story about a brother-sister dynamic because I haven’t seen it that much in film. You get the sister-sister or the brother-brother, but the brother-sister is such a unique dynamic and there’s an odd sort of communication barrier. It’s a delicate relationship and I really wanted to explore that in the film.

APA: I find the character Kasie very interesting as well. Tiffany, what attracted you to playing this role in the film?

Tiffany: For this film, a lot of it was the family relationship. Not every family is perfect and Kasie’s parents are immigrant parents, just like my parents. There are a lot of struggles with identity, with Kasie being Korean-American and me being Taiwanese-American. Also, for Kasie and Carey, they have this sibling communication dynamic, which is something I had to learn and figure out with Teddy, who plays Carey, because I’m an only child. Hopefully people who watch this film can see their own struggles and see their own stories through it.

APA: You mentioned that you’re a Taiwanese-American, but here you’re playing a Korean-American role. Was there anything you learned about Korean culture along the way and was there anything that surprised you?

Tiffany: When I went to college I was around a lot of Koreans and had a lot of Korean friends. I think it was just more so understanding the hostess part of the character and discovering the different dynamics with Teddy.

APA: I think having Kasie playing a hostess really stood out to me when watching this film. Because she’s working as a hostess at a karaoke bar in K-Town, we really get this insider perspective into how women are treated and objectified in the community. Justin, I noticed that you never shy away from the discomfort of these moments, even though they might not highlight the best parts of that culture. I think that it’s so vital in building empathy for Kasie and the other women in her situation. I was wondering if you could speak to your thought process in highlighting this portion of the story and how you decided to tell this story.

Justing: Unfortunately, this type of work is so prevalent. It’s prevalent in Taiwan, prevalent in Japan, prevalent in China, prevalent in Korea, and the hostess’ main job is where business is done with a lot of Asian businessmen. With Kasie’s dress and how she burns it in the end, my question to the audience is, “What are the traditions we leave behind in the motherland and what do we bring with us?” Like, what is important to carry with us as we become Americans and what is just trash? What is left behind? Not necessarily that the dress is left behind – I actually think that the hanbok is beautiful – but it’s a symbolic way of saying that. That’s why she wears it to the karaoke bar because then it’s like there’s this tradition of this type of culture and this type of work: do you want this traditional, subservient portrayal of a woman or can we just shed it and adopt different cultures and become our own sort of ethnicity as we become Americans? That’s why the whole Chicano thing is in there. Just because you’re Asian, whether it’s Taiwanese or Korean, are you not allowed to adopt other cultures and the beautiful things about these other cultures?

APA: I really like how you made this into an immigrant story. We have this family uprooting from Korea and settling down in Los Angeles, and then bringing in Chicano culture with Octavio. I think that’s very interesting because LA is known for being the home of both Mexican and Korean communities, which are two of the largest ethnic groups in the city. I know your previous film, Gook, was also set in LA. The setting seems really important to the film – did that idea come to you straight away? Like I want this to be set in Los Angeles because it has so much history?

Justin: I wanted to tell a Korean sibling story because it reflected my own life. Los Angeles really is a character, and I grew up in Southern California. I have a lot of friends who grew up in Koreatown and it’s gentrified so much that it’s become unrecognizable. I just wonder about the people who grew up there. I feel like they’re in a time capsule and left behind. If you notice the way Kasie and Carey dress, it’s almost dated. It’s not hip and of contemporary times. I wanted to tell a story about these two people who never left this bubble and were afraid to leave the borders of Koreatown.

APA: Tiffany, your character, Kasie, experiences a range of emotions throughout the film, from loneliness to anger to desperation, and there were some scenes where your performance was so strong and the scenes so vivid that I felt like I was experiencing her feelings second-hand. How did you prepare for these emotionally intense scenes and what was it like to shoot them?

Tiffany: We had rehearsed for five weeks. Teddy grew up in LA, so he showed me around a lot of the places that I was not as familiar with. A lot of it was visualization, listening to music, just a lot of daydreaming.

APA: I want to touch on a specific scene near the end of the film where Kasie stands up for herself and another hostess by attacking two of the club patrons who are harassing them, and she has to hold herself back from almost killing one of them. Justin, what was your vision in directing this scene? I felt like this was one of the most intense moments of the film.

Justin: That scene was really, really hard to shoot and get right. Trying to figure out how long the scene should be, how violent the scene should be. One felt gratuitous, one felt underwhelming and not making a point. It was a fine balance. The biggest thing for me was that I needed to have the women come in and help her. I didn’t want to shy away from the reality of a situation like that. I learned a lot about writing for a female on this job because when I was writing, I thought that, because I’m empathetic and I’m a human, I should be able to write for anybody, right? For Gook, I wrote for a nine-year-old black girl, I was able to empathize. But man, this whole movie humbled me. I was struggling. At times I was lost, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on and the biggest mistake that I made was, when I was writing the drafts, I tried to make everything fair. So if something bad happened to her, something good had to happen to her. What I finally realized, when I was like “Why the fuck is this script not working?”, is that that is the biggest injustice, portraying it in that fair way. I don’t think that represents the true burden that women have to carry. I think that life is unfair and I think by me making it fair like that, I wasn’t representing the reality of what it might be like. It’s a fucking uncomfortable scene, man. Mind you, when I’m editing this scene I watched it for like hundreds of hours, and after a while it just starts to really eat away at your soul. 

What I wanted from it was for people to feel uncomfortable and see the reality of it, but also for Kasie to get her power back. There’s that character shift in that moment where she breaks the glass and stands up for the other girl and everybody comes in. Now, at the end of the movie, what choices she decides to make from there, I don’t know. I think that’s also the beauty of the movie. You as the audience have to make those sort of assumptions or, as Tiffany’s saying, daydream on what you think happened to her after that. But at least in that moment, there’s hope, and there’s a chance that she might think about herself and change.

APA: When you’re talking about how much you’ve learned from this movie, what was that learning process like? Did you go out and talk to a lot of the women in your life? How did you come to this new perspective?

Justin: Well, shit. I gave the script to my sister and she automatically told me, “Why are you being so scared about everything?” That was one thing. A lot of people read the script and gave me feedback. Even in the edit, people of all walks of life watched it. Another thing that I realized was that just because you’re female doesn’t mean that you have the same opinions either. I ask, “What did you think about the scene? Did you think it was too brutal?”, and I get different answers from every woman as well. What is too much for one woman is not too much for another woman, but there is a general consensus of certain levels and limits. It really is and was a learning process for me, and I think on the other side of it all, I’m really grateful that I went through this and I’m so appreciative of Tiffany for going on the journey for me. 

APA: Tiffany, could you speak to how you felt during that scene?

Tiffany: Definitely what is important is for people who watch it to see that there is a community out there. It’s not just one person going through this. Everyone goes through their own kinds of struggles in different ways. Everybody has their own opinions or own say or own take from it.

APA: Thank you so much for explaining that. For me, that was definitely one of the most powerful moments, and getting to hear from you guys about that scene is very enlightening. 

Shifting gears now, I wanted to go back and talk about the hanbok. That’s a really prominent symbol throughout the film and in the flashback childhood scenes as well. In the first opening scene, we see Kasie as a very young girl getting dressed up in this traditional Korean dress. I was hoping you could explain the significance behind the title Ms. Purple and the significance of the color purple in the film.

Justin: Purple is the color of mourning in Korea. The whole film is Kasie letting go of her father, and it’s her mourning process. To go back to the opening scene, I think some people kind of get creeped out by that first scene because they don’t quite know who this man is. One of the things he keeps saying is, “Oh, you’re so pretty. You have to look pretty for your mom”. Kasie takes that reinforcement, those sorts of comments that the dad is making, and navigates life with that replaying in her mind, which is why she then takes on a profession that requires looks. That opening scene shows you, man, the things you say to your children can really stay with them. There are things that my parents have said to me that I still remember to this day.

The color purple and the hanbok is really just mourning death while also shedding culture. What is the path to becoming an American? When Japanese people enter the fourth or fifth generation of kids, there’s not that much left of Japan. It’s more of the traditions that they’ve created and mixed with their life in America. I find that so fascinating. What traditions are important? Respecting your elders? How much filial piety? I don’t have answers for that shit, I’m just asking the questions.

APA: I wanted to also point out that a lot of the staff members beyond the cast were also of Asian descent, and you also co-wrote this script with Chris Dinh. It’s been great to see that Asian-Americans are not only achieving greater representation in front of the camera but also behind it. I know you’ve been in the film world for quite a few years now – what changes have you noticed in representation and what do you think the path forward will be like? What more stories do we have left to tell?

Justin: There are more opportunities now that aren’t as stereotypical. I think Tiffany has been auditioning for a lot of stuff now, right? Not just limited to Asian people?

Tiffany: Yeah, it’s not just limited to Asian people. I definitely think it’s on a good path, but I think there are a lot of things thematically that could be changed.

APA: Can you talk a bit more about what things you would want to see changed?

Justin: I think we need it all. That’s my answer. I think we need it all. I think we need the Crazy Rich Asians and the romantic comedies. I think we need the cheeseball sitcoms, and we also need the Asian superhero movies. And I also think we need what Ms. Purple is, which is much more of a fact-of-life, arthouse representation of us. I don’t think we should just be nourishing ourselves with one thing.

Here’s the other thing. In Asian-American media, we should start to incorporate things that are from Asia. In years past, it’s like, “I want to be as American as possible because I want to be like everybody else – I want to be like my white counterpart”. But those days are gone. Like so what? We eat this, we eat that. Am I not allowed to see that on American television? I think those things that we were embarrassed about now make us cool. Look at K-pop. I listened to K-pop in junior high in the early ‘90s and it was embarrassing. I listened to K-pop and Nirvana, right? But I would never let anyone catch me listening to K-pop. But now, shit, we can have it all and it’s so international that what I’m hoping to see is more international productions, stuff that is completely just mixed. I’ve said this in tons of interviews, but what I love to see is things that indicate how we can all coexist within this country. The film that I’m making right now is about a Korean adoptee in the South who strikes up a relationship with a Vietnamese girl who grew up in New Orleans. But the guy’s in an interracial relationship with a Caucasian girl and has a white step-daughter. That’s how mixed it should be. It reflects my own life. My wife is Caucasian, and I have a mixed kid. And then we have Simu in Shang-Chi and that’s absolutely necessary, and we have Mulan, that’s absolutely necessary. And then we have Dr. Ken, Ken Jeong, doing his thing with creating content. I think we need it all.

APA: We’re definitely seeing more diversity in the stories being told. Tiffany, is there any specific story or role you would love to be a part of?

Tiffany: I think something like Mulan, or just anything that you’re really able to connect to, like how people who watch Ms. Purple can connect with Kasie. Just really trying to tell a story, trying to tell a message, trying to just be true.

APA: Thank you. I have one final question for you both to wrap up this interview. What are you most proud of in making this film? What is the one thing that you really took away?

Justin: What I’m proud of is that I can show the filmmaking community that you don’t need a lot of money to tell a good story. You can cast in a very diverse way, you can work with a very diverse crew, and you can still have critical mass. This is just a bunch of kids making a film, and doing something that’s very impossible – taking it to Sundance, such a world-renowned festival, and standing toe-to-toe with films that have ten times more of a budget. We weren’t in some special offshoot category, we were in Dramatic Competition. That is awesome that that’s possible. For me, I’m the most proud of that because if I can do it, a lot of people can do it. It’s just a matter of going out and failing enough times and getting it right. That’s what I’m really proud of with this film.

Tiffany: I’m really proud that as my first movie that we were able to get into Sundance and be in competition with all of these other amazing, big-budgeted films and other talented people. I think that it’s a really great accomplishment and I’m really proud that people enjoyed the film. Some people came up to me and said they really loved it. They could feel what Kasie is going through and that’s what I hope people take away from it.

Ms. Purple is set to release in select theaters nationwide on September 6th.

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