EXCLUSIVE: As an Asian American filmmaker, Justin Chon has made his own lane when it comes to telling Asian American narratives. His film Gook premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and put him on Hollywood’s radar as an up and coming filmmaker. The black and white film about two Korean brothers during the L.A. riots won the Best of Next award at the fest and then went on to win the “Someone To Watch” Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. His follow-up, Ms. Purple, premiered Friday in Park City and it’s becoming a buzzworthy title among audiences. It’s safe to say that Chon is officially a Sundance darling.
“If it was about the money or the fame or any of that bullshit I wouldn’t be making these stories,” Chon tells Deadline. “It’s too hard to!”
When the actor-turned-director talked to us, he was still on a high from the Ms. Purple premiere the day before. The film continues Chon’s affinity for family-oriented stories set in Los Angeles with phenomenal newcomer Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee (Spa Night) starring as an estranged sister and brother who are brought together by their father, who is on his death bed. Kasie (Chu) works as a doumi girl, a hostess paid to cater to rich businessmen at karaoke rooms in L.A.’s Koreatown (we’ll get into that later). She uses her money to help care for his bed-ridden father, but when the live-in caretaker quits, she reaches out to her brother Carey (Lee) who agrees to help. As Kasie struggles with her doumi lifestyle, the siblings attempt to rebuild their once-close relationship as they are haunted by memories of their absent mother and the father who favored her over him. Where Gook dealt with the relationship between two brothers and a surrogate little sister, Ms. Purple explores the complexities of the often overlooked sister-brother relationship. Chon loves exploring sibling dynamics and putting them on screen because they are universal. Even if you don’t have a sibling, you are always connected to somebody in your life.
“The other reason I really love [sibling relationships] is because a lot doesn’t need to be said,” explains Chon. “There’s a lot of past that’s already built in and it’s just there.”
The narrative is rooted in familial and sibling relationships, but Kasie’s narrative is front and center. We are taken on this journey with her and Chon and Chris Dinh who co-wrote the script, give an unfiltered, unapologetic, and Instagram filter-free look at her life.
“I was going to write from the brother’s standpoint because that’s me,” said Chon, who connected with the story because of his relationship with his sister. “I understand [their bond] very deeply but I stopped myself.” Chon said that this was a good opportunity to have the protagonist be the sister.
Chon admits that just because he is empathetic, an artist, has a sister, a mother that didn’t mean he would be able to write from a female perspective. Chon had long talks with his sister to help him get a female point of view and sculpt their complex relationship. He even used the character of Carey to helped inform Kaisie — as siblings do.
“You kinda wanna experience the other person through another character and I think, the beginning of the film is really just like me just showing Kasie in her daily life and existence — and I was really trying to build some empathy for her,” Chon said. “And then when Carey comes you know how much he means to her. That’s why you care about both of them.”
At the beginning of the film, we see Kasie’s life as a doumi, a concept that many outside of the Korean culture would not be familiar with. Many might see doumi girls as a geisha and almost a dated and even misogynistic role for a woman. Chon was mindful about the respected portrayal of women in his films and the tradition of a doumi fits in with one of the many layered themes of Ms. Purple. Chon said there’s a theme in the film of what Koreans and other immigrant cultures bring from the old country to America. He poses the question: “What are the things that we should keep in our culture, and what are the things we should throw away?” He parallels this theme to familial relationships in terms of “what should we keep intact?”
There’s one pivotal moment in the film where a client gives Kaisie a traditional Korean dress that she doesn’t even want, but takes it anyway. “The dress — I wasn’t personally saying that’s a bad thing — but it’s visually a representation for the audience to see that, you know, this thing holds her back.” The dress is the titular color of purple which, in Korea, is a color of mourning — for her cultural baggage and her father.
With Gook dealing with toxic masculinity and men’s ego, Chon was very mindful that Ms. Purple was an opportunity to let a female narrative shine. In addition, they both deal with cultural identity and sibling relationships — and there’s almost a feeling that this should be a trilogy.
“That’s so funny you picked up on that! Yes, there is one more movie I’d like to do,” reveals Chon. He points out that it was somewhat of an intentional trilogy but he’s not advertising it. “It’s just something I’d like to do, but I can’t help it, man,” he laughs.
His next film is at MACRO and currently has the working title Blue Bayou. It’s a bookend to this trilogy of Asian familial dramas and focuses on a Korean American adoptee from New Orleans that’s getting deported. Where Gook was a story about a brother and a brother and Ms. Purple puts the lens on a sister and brother, Blue Bayou focuses on a relationship between a mother and son.
“You know the thing about these adoptees is they’re adopted here internationally by white people,” said Chon, who has been working on a script for a year and a half. “This is happening at an alarming rate because now there are these loopholes that ICE are finding ways to deport these adoptees. They came here when they were like two, three, or four from whatever country.”
This particular story follows a guy and his road to understanding his mother because “he’s so resentful.” Chon explains that he came to the U.S., his parents gave him up and then he went through foster care. “Now the country that took him in wants to kick him out,” he explains. “They don’t him to be there. Nobody wants him, right? He’s so resentful to his mother because she put him in that situation. That’s from a standpoint of not thinking about the other side of it, just thinking about his situation and the movie explores the mother-son relationship a lot.”
Chon may have starred in popcorn movies like 21 and Over and the Twilght franchise, but he is now hitting his stride as an indie auteur — an Asian American auteur at that. He, along with other Asian American filmmakers like fellow Sundancers Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) are carving out a lane for themselves to bring even more nuance to Asian American narratives.
“The reason I stepped behind the camera is to take control of the story, number one,” said Chon. “Number two, I realize how I add the value to the Asian American community right now. We have Justin Lin, we have James Wan, and John Chu —they’re doing that space incredibly well. They’re doing the studio system so and more commercial traditional films. I think I’m so well served in telling these much more intimate stories that bring empathy to us, to our community, and portray us in an authentic way — and I think that is penetrating the culture in a different way.”
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