Color Study

'Ms. Purple' showcases the power of pre-production, San Jose actress Tiffany Chu
NEON NOIR: The vibrant colored lights of Los Angeles' Koreatown form a prison in 'Ms. Purple.'

Purple is the color of mourning throughout much of the world. Justin Chon's acute Ms. Purple is a character study of Kasie (an affecting Tiffany Chu), an Angeleno who works as a doumi at the luridly neoned karaoke bars in Koreatown. "Doumi" translates as "helper." What it means in practice is hustling soju, standing in a line-up with other hostesses and dealing with drunk, grabby businessmen.

Kasie makes money for the upkeep of her dying father (James Kang), whose wife left long ago. When her skidding brother Carey (Teddy Lee) turns up, there's a tentative reconnection between the estranged siblings.

From New York by phone, the locally raised Chu defines her acting style simply: "I guess I just try to be as honest as I can."

There were five weeks of rehearsal for her. The research involved a night at the kind of karaoke bar where Kasie works. "Not comfortable, not pleasant," Tiffany says tersely.

Born in Taiwan, Tiffany moved to San Jose when she was 8 months old. She grew up near the intersection of Lundy Avenue and Hostetter Road, later attending Independence High.

During her sophomore year, Tiffany interned at CreaTV and made a film. "My dad always took lots of pictures, so I learned darkroom photography. One thing we always did was take advantage of the end-of-summer one-cent sale at Office Depot. There's a village in Taiwan where they have to go down the mountain to get to school, so we donated all the stationery to them when we visited. I talked to the students and filmed them."

At UC Irvine, where she studied in the Film and Media Studies Department, Tiffany took acting classes for her major, but she didn't appear on stage. The acting was part of her plan to get deeper into film. "I always wanted to be in front of a camera, but I also wanted to learn everything about filmmaking," she says.

Chu landed the role of Kasie after responding to a Facebook ad. "She had a natural melancholy quality," Justin Chon recalls. The director asked Tiffany to watch Alicia Vikander in her debut, Pure (2010) as an idea of what he had in mind for her role.

Chon based the dynamics between Kasie and Carey on his own family. "I have a younger sister," he says, "and that's what inspired me to tell this story. I've never had the misfortune of having to bury a parent."

Chon started as an actor, playing Eric in the Twilight series. His directoral debut, Gook (2017), took the NEXT award at Sundance. It was an autobiographical black-and-white drama about the Rodney King riots of 1992. Chon's father was a shopkeeper in Paramount, a town on the other side of the 710 freeway from Compton. The store was emptied by rioters.

Ms. Purple, which played at this year's Sundance, has a far richer visual texture than his debut. The color is intoxicating, with silhouettes of 80-foot Washingtonia robusta palms against the violet evenings, sentinels of the forlorn, old central LA. Chon's emphasis on subway stations and the romantic old interior of Union Station recalls film noir.

The colors of these nocturnes were all done in camera, not in post-production. "We created a lot before we shot. We planned a color pallette and shot at times of day that heightened the color." He also slows the film occasionally, in instances that stutter frame by frame. "The director of photography Ante Cheng and I had talked about that for a while. I wasn't quite sure how to do it. So we shot it both ways, figuring out to use these pauses in moments of great emotional duress."

Distributed by the ever-eclectic Oscilloscope Films, Ms. Purple is the sort of small movie that usually turns up simultaneously in a theatrical release and on streaming. The theatrical run for Ms. Purple is more than just a strategy to get the word out. Says Chon, "I feel it's kind of important to see in a theater. It has more power in a theater than in a laptop."

Ms. Purple
UR; 87 Mins.
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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