Director Justin Chon reevaluates the American dream in Ms. Purple

By ARAN CHANG | September 12, 2019

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Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA 4.0 

Director Justin Chon’s recent film Ms. Purple unveils a new side to Asian-American life.

Many may recognize Justin Chon as a frequent collaborator of popular Asian-American Youtubers Wong Fu, Ryan Higa and KevJumba. Or to others less familiar with YouTube, he can be associated with Eric Yorkie from Twilight or Brenda Song’s annoying brother in Disney’s Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. 

But Chon has long left behind the small film roles and has instead been embarking on a mission to tell the Asian-American stories that we never talk about — not just the ones that Hollywood is reluctant to put on the big screen, but the stories that our own communities are hesitant to address.

Chon first came to the Sundance Film Festival scene with the acclaimed movie Gook, a story of two Korean-Americans navigating the 1992 Los Angeles riots. After winning the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance as well as the Best Director and Best Narrative Feature Film at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Chon is back again with another story to tell, Ms. Purple

While Gook is comedic and action-packed, shot in monochrome black-and-white, Ms. Purple is quieter and slower-paced. As The Hollywood Reporter states, director of photography Lenser Ante Cheng “casts a lush spell” with his beautifully shot scenes shrouded in shadows of dark purples, reds and greens. The mournful sound of the cello sucks the audience into Kasie’s world, the dark underbelly of Koreatown. 

Despite the drastic change in tone from his first film, Chon continues to focus his camera on a theme that Asian-Americans we often “forget.” This time, he tells the story of the Asian Americans who didn’t make it — the ones who don’t fit the narrative of the model minority myth and the ones who worked hard, but somehow could not achieve what America claims to be the attainable American Dream. 

At the beginning of the film we meet Kasie, who works as a “doumi girl,” which, in Korean, is essentially another way of referring to a hostess who occupies late night karaoke rooms, stereotypically “entertaining” rich businessmen. It’s obvious to the audience that Kasie didn’t choose this life. She feels no empowerment or sense of autonomy from her job, instead having to rely on the whims of the finicky and often aggressive businessmen to determine if she would make a living that night or leave work without injuries.

But she can’t give up. In the next scenes that are suddenly awash in familiar Los Angeles sunlight, we find she is the sole provider for her dying father. And despite everyone telling her to put him in a senior home, she can’t bear to give up on him just yet.

However, with a job with extremely long and late hours and no one willing to take on the task of becoming his live-in nurse, she couldn’t possibly take on the task of looking after her father on her own. Kasie reaches out to her estranged brother, Carey, who isn’t faring much better. The film implies that he left home after a huge disagreement with their father, and that since then he has been living in desolate quarters with no job. He spends his days either sneaking into “PC bangs,” or game rooms, to illegally play for free, or aimlessly wandering around Koreatown.

The siblings reconnect over the shared trauma of their mother’s abandonment, their depressed, dying father and their extremely hopeless lives. They imagine a better life for themselves, where Carey has found a job so that Kasie can finally go back to school and follow her dreams of becoming a pianist.

But the trauma runs too deep, and with no family, community and money to turn to, the dreams are just that — dreams. And while the life of a “doumi girl” is unforgiving and dangerous, it makes the money that Kasie needs.

The story is quite a contrast to Crazy Rich Asians, where the female protagonist and her mother work diligently to climb their way up the social ladder to become an economics professor and a successful real estate agent, respectively. 

And again, compare Ms. Purple to Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, where the protagonists’ parents build their profitable family businesses from the ground up to ensure that their kids are well-provided for.

Viewers may be surprised to see such a desolate side to Koreatown. When people hear “K-town,” they often think of Korean beauty stores like Innisfree or Tony Moly, stores with windows full of pictures of K-pop stars with colorful hair and over-the-top outfits, Korean BBQ restaurants serving delicious meats piled on a steel grill or bars selling the instantly recognizable emerald green bottles of soju. In fact, many speak of Koreatown as a top tourist destination in Los Angeles. 

But for Carey and Kasie, Koreatown is a trap, a place they can’t leave. Their parents had been lured into the neighborhood by promises of the American Dream. But in this process, their mother abandoned her children to pursue her dreams, and their father, despite working to the bone, never made enough to move out of the dilapidated home they had first moved into when immigrating to the U.S. 

This reality is not uncommon. We just don’t discuss it outside of the Asian American community. 

We only tend to see huge numbers of Asian Americans attending high ranking universities, piling into medical and engineering fields and diligently taking part in math and science competitions. It’s less often that we see Asian American families who work hours at low-paying jobs to barely make ends meet or Asian American students who can’t attend college.

While it’s important to see success stories that inspire us, motivate us and show us that there are those who did make it, it’s also just as important to recognize the ones who didn’t. To remember that, we shouldn’t call the model minority myth a “myth” simply because we want to be politically correct. 

There are plenty of untold stories that the Asian American community has chosen to ignore. There has plenty of stories whose importance the community has never understood. 

Until I saw Ms. Purple, I myself never realized the importance of telling these stories. I simply accepted these as facts of life and never realized that people outside of my community had no idea that people like Kasie and Carey existed.

Chon’s film gives a much needed depth to what the label and identity “Korean American” means — not the stereotypical Korean American we occasionally see on mainstream media, but an individual someone with stories, just like everyone else, struggling with financial issues, complex family issues or existential issues.

All Chon has done is simply weave a quiet tale of an ordinary Korean American girl with problems that many people will face at some point in their lives. The triumph in his story is not just how he handles her character with such poise and grace (and not to mention the beautiful cinematography and the breathtaking music). It’s the fact that he tells a story that should already be out there. And yet, he is the first to tell it.

Unfortunately, independent films like Ms. Purple can only open at very few locations. I had the special opportunity of getting to watch Chon’s film at a special screening in New York City. If you or your friends are interested in seeing the film for yourselves in theaters, contact your local theater to express interest, perhaps to bring a much needed story like Ms. Purple to Baltimore.

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