Former San Jose resident Tiffany Chu commands every moment she’s on screen in Justin Chon’s gorgeously shot and moving “Ms. Purple,” hitting Bay Area theaters this Friday.
As Kasie, a caregiver for her dad by day and escort by night, Chu gives a seasoned performance — one that’s rich and nuanced but beautifully restrained instead of overstated.
What’s remarkable is that this is Chu’s first major acting role. And she along with the film itself is collecting raves.
“Ms. Purple” received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year and marks the second feature from the talented Chon. It’s a departure from Chon’s gut puncher of a black-and-white 2017 “Gook.”
While “Ms. Purple’s” narrative hinges on the reunited relationship between a sister (Chu) and a brother Carey (Teddy Lee) as they care for their ailing, bed-ridden father, the main character undoubtedly remains Kasie, as she struggles and sacrifices in a beatdown apartment in Koreatown. When she asks for help from her brother, the family dynamics shift with Kasie staying resolute about not wanting to put her father in assisted care.
It’s a meaty role written by Chon and co-screenwriter Chris Dinh, and it’s one that Chu — who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to San Jose with her parents when she was 6 months — connected to quickly.
“Family is important to me too,” she said during a phone interview with Chon. “So that’s what I related to.”
One of the strengths of Chon’s evocativate film is that it creates a vivid sense of what living in Koreatown is truly like.
Chon admits conveying that wasn’t easy.
“Koreatown is hard to photograph,” he said, “not exactly the most uniform.”
Another challenge was creating that ideal ending. Chon thought he came up with a perfect one, but then after seeing it filmed, he scrapped it.
“It didn’t have as much poignancy as I desired,” he said. The ending he came up with is haunting.
Given that the film is about Kasie’s choices, actions and circumstances — including being a “kept” woman and suffering the consequences — it was a challenging role.
“It was all hard,” she says. “But what I think was the hardest was staying true to Kasie’s character. That took a lot of discipline because it’s such a heavy character and so I have to be in that mindset.”
Chu’s love for cinema was fostered early on and led her to this current career path.
“Growing up my parents and I watched a lot of Asian films,” she said, noting she didn’t watch many American films or TV shows until she went to college at UC Irvine.
“Ms. Purple” dives into themes that will particularly resonant with Asian American audiences, as it did with one of the year’s best-reviewed films, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.”
The topic of caring for older relatives touches such a strong chord, Chon thinks, due to cultural values systems.
“Korean people take that to the extreme,” he said, citing the sense of piety and duty to one’s parents at the expense of one’s own well-being.
Through a series of symbolic scenes — including Kasie wearing a traditional purple dress — Chon expresses one of his major themes.
“Basically what I’m trying to say with all that stuff is … what values are worth bringing to use from the old country and what’s better left behind.”
That point come across clearly in “Ms. Purple” as Chu’s portrait of a complicated young woman.
And while the actress acknowledges she’d like to take on many different roles in the future, there’s one she’s hankering to do.
“I would love to be a bad-ass assassin.”
* “Ms. Purple” opens Friday, Sept. 20, at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the 3Below Theaters and Lounge in San Jose. Chu will be participating in Q&As: at 7:15 p.m, Sept. 20 and Sept. 21 and noon Sept. 22 at the Embarcadero; and 1:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Shattuck.