You may know Justin Chon as an actor in vehicles ranging from the Disney Channel’s Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior and Nickelodeon’s Just Jordan to The Twilight Saga film series and the 2018 season’s one-and-done ABC series Deception. The Korean-American, who was born in Garden Grove and raised in Irvine, has also delved into comedy with a spot in the K-pop parody group Boys Generally Asian as well as in his first feature film as a writer/director, 2015’s Man Up.
It’s about young Asian slackers Martin (Kevin Wu) and Randall (Chon) suddenly facing adulthood when Martin’s white Mormon girlfriend (Galadriel Stineman) reveals she is pregnant. Some cast Man Up as the second coming of Juno, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, while others found the movie clumsy, unfunny and barely watchable.
A mixed reception would not be the only thing to play a role in Chon’s maturity as a cinematic artist. In 2016, he penned an opinion piece about the racism he experienced in Hollywood, and the following year came his film with controversy baked right into the title. Gook is set on the first day of the L.A. riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. Borrowing from Chon’s experiences from his father’s shoe store in Compton, the writer-director and David So play brothers who run their dad’s footwear shop in Compton-adjacent Paramount, where they form an unlikely friendship with an 11-year-old African-American girl (Simone Baker) who helps them out.
The raves Gook won at Sundance did little to quell the outcry over naming the film after an ethnic slur, with Chon telling Inverse at the time, “We’ve already gotten some backlash from the Korean community about the title, but that’s the point; I want them to get angry and wonder why it’s happening, so we can talk about it. I tell people, I completely address it in the film. ‘Gook’ is a Korean word for country and Mi-gook means America, but it actually means ‘beautiful country.’ Why is that word used against us? I talk about it very thoroughly in the film.”
Despite the controversy, Gook scored 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, whose critical consensus states: “From its confrontational title to its striking cinematography, this raw cinematic gem uncompromisingly proves writer/director/actor Justin Chon is a filmmaker to watch.”
I’m happy to report that proof is also evident in Chon’s latest film, Ms. Purple, a moody, heartbreaking drama about a young woman (Tiffany Chu) and her estranged brother (Teddy Lee) coming together to care for their dying father (James King) in a suffocating Koreatown apartment.
Why the siblings have been motherless since childhood and still stuck in existential ruts unfolds slowly as Chon’s story mainly focuses on Lee’s estranged Carey returning from the streets to help Chu’s Kasie care for their dying dad.
Kasie is as lost as Carey is, raising money to keep her barely coherent father as comfortable as possible by working as a hostess—at best an escort, at worst a prostitute—for Asian men who party into the wee hours at a karaoke bar. Some are abusive, some are boyfriend material and as Kasie sadly discovers, at least one is both.
The trauma the brother and sister carried from childhood into adulthood continues to bind them. (In the production notes, Chon says he based Ms. Purple on his relationship with his sister.) Credit him and the actors for bringing that to the surface quietly, with glances, touches and snuggles rather than dialogue that explicitly spells out what simmers below the surface.
Chu in particular delivers a riveting performance that should position her as a young actress to keep an eye on.
Chon and cinematographer Ante Cheng play with shadows and splash Ms. Purple in blues and, as the title suggests, purples to create otherworldly views of a Los Angeles community specifically and impoverished America generally that seldom turn up on movie screens.
“I feel extremely lucky to be an Asian American filmmaker at this time where it seems like audiences finally want to see Asian faces on the big screen,” Chon says in the press notes. “The successes of Crazy Rich Asians and Searching this past year have been groundbreaking in starting the movement, and I feel Ms. Purple is significant because it represents the other half of our community, the crazy poor half.”
If the plot description sounds morose, and the film certainly is, the 38-year-old filmmaker does manage to tag on as much of an upbeat ending as can still be plausible. Racist or not, this is Hollywood, after all.
Ms. Purple was written and directed by Justin Chon; and stars Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano, Ronnie Kim and James King. Opens Fri. at Edwards Westpark 8, 3735 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (844) 462-7342. Call theater for times. $10.20-$13.20.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.