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There’s no doubt that life has its ups and downs. One day the sky is a mesmerizing blue with not a cloud in the sky to hinder the beautiful sun from shining its rays upon you and your soul. Other days the sky is a frightening shade of gray and a dark sense of failure looms over your head. We all deal with these types of feelings at one point or another, and Johnny, the lead protagonist in “The Purple Onion,” is no different. He is human. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“The Purple Onion” was written, directed, produced, and edited by Matt Szymanowski, a Polish-American that funded the project with a $20,000 Indiegogo campaign and his branding business, Wolves Films. Szymanowski drew inspiration from working nights at the Punchline comedy club in San Francisco, where he met Edwin Li. He began following Li around to his various gigs he had around town, forming a desire in him to show the relationship between an artist and his work.
Although the movie has yet to reach mass audiences, it has circulated across a few festivals celebrating Asian American culture, including the Asian American International Film Festival in New York and the Austin Asian American Film Festival. It has been highly regarded for its representation of Asian Americans and its thoroughly relatable humanness that can make almost any movie goer tilt their head and say, “Hey, I know that feeling all too well.”
“The Purple Onion” tells the story of Johnny (played by Edwin Li), a dishwasher and aspiring comedian who is trying desperately to hone his craft and pick himself up out of this hole he feels the world has created around him. You will generally see him working or walking around with his headphones on listening to nothing other than his own stand up — obviously stroking his own ego. But, when he isn’t stroking his ego, he’s stroking himself. Yes, masturbation comes up occasionally in the movie, but it only aids in making Johnny more down to earth and closer to home as a character. It really helps paint the picture of a person who is down on their luck, lonely, and trying to find some sort of release for everything they wish they weren’t feeling.
His life is further complicated when a family friend (or possibly a distant relative) comes to stay with him while she’s trying to get back on her feet. They’re on two different paths. They’re two different people just trying to make it in a world that can make you or break you. Their attempts to understand each other leave an everlasting mark. This impact is most evident in Johnny, who finally begins to realize that maybe not everyone is out to get him after all.
A main takeaway from this is that Johnny, while not being the stereotypical white male lead, he is highly relatable and entertaining to watch. Yes, he’s Asian American, but in no way does this lessen the connection you feel when watching him on screen. Edwin Li’s spectacular performance and Matt Szymanowski’s directing skills come together to make a movie that is special and and to be enjoyed by all audiences as something everyone can enjoy and laugh at (and maybe cry at …) regardless of race, gender or sexuality.
Another facet I really enjoyed was the very real feeling of awkwardness that came through the screen. Johnny is an awkward person, not doubt about it, but none of his character felt forced or like too much of an exaggeration of someone who lives with social awkwardness and anxiety. This fact alone made this movie especially significant to me. I watched as Johnny struggled with his fear of failure and rejection, and I saw bits of myself within him. It was refreshing to see such an accurate portrayal of what goes on in the minds of people who are going through a rough patch or live with anxiety and social awkwardness on a daily basis.
“The Purple Onion” is a story about an underdog for the underdogs. We’ve all been there. We’ve all watched as the people around us continue to move forward and make something of themselves while we’re sitting in the background waiting for that sign telling us to make our next step. I laughed. I cried (a little). I enjoyed myself. I saw a part of me play out on the big screen in the form of a comedian trying to make it big. If you get the chance to watch this movie, I urge you to do so. It has been masterfully crafted by people who truly love filmmaking and understand what it’s like to be human, and sometimes being understood is all we really need.