Ms. Purple (USA, 2019)

Ms. Purple sees actor-director Justin Chon returning to the Los Angeles Koreatown milieu of his well-received 2017 debut feature Gook, but the saturated stylistic texture here marks a departure from the arresting black-and-white aesthetic of its predecessor. As much as Chon evidently feels compelled to tell Asian-American stories within a particular urban space, it’s apparent from the early frames of Ms. Purple that he doesn’t want to be boxed in by preconceptions of how such stories should be presented. Whereas his LA riots drama Gook was pointedly spare, his sophomore outing is a hazier experience. More poetically inclined, it pivots on an estranged brother-sister dynamic in order to shed further light on the complexities and contradictions of the so-called ‘model minority’.

Once a promising classical pianist, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is still living in her childhood home to care for her terminally ill father (James King) as her mother left years earlier for reasons revealed through flashbacks. Kasie has been forced to set her dreams aside and make a living as a hostess at an upscale karaoke bar, which entails keeping the drunken advances of high rollers at bay while still providing sufficiently exotic company to justify a generous tip. As degrading as it can be, the job just about covers the cost of her father’s live-in nurse, but when the latest helper quits at short notice, Kasie struggles to find a replacement. This has less to do with money than Kasie’s refusal to accept the extent of her father’s deteriorating condition. She is repeatedly told that he needs to be admitted to a hospice but stubbornly insists that he belongs at home.

Desperate for assistance, she reconnects with her brother Carey (Teddy Lee), who ran away from home when they were children. An anti-social drifter who spends most of his time in Internet bars, Carey agrees to Kasie’s proposal and moves back into the family home. Even with this problem temporarily dealt with, Kasie’s questionable profession is talking a toll, as indicated by her occasional drug use. An exit strategy is presented in successful entrepreneur Tony (Ronnie Kim), whose relationship with Kasie exits at a precarious intersection between client and boyfriend. In one scene, he takes her to get a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and it is this statement of ownership that prompts Kasie to make a tough choice between security and agency.

As an actor, Chon has an eclectic list of credits ranging from Twilight (2008) to Seoul Searching (2015) to Wayne Wang’s latest feature Coming Home Again (2019). It’s presumably this experience in front of the camera that has enabled him to elicit a transfixing performance from relative newcomer Chu, who is absolutely riveting as a young woman straining to postpone an inevitable trauma while still recovering from childhood hardship. Often working without expository dialogue, Chu constantly expresses the exhaustion behind Kasie’s defiant façade. Whether slipping into the detached state necessary to get through another night of hostess work or dutifully giving her father a bath, her finely layered portrayal makes it painfully apparent that we are witnessing the last vestiges of filial piety.

In terms of pulling the viewer into an emotional vortex, Chu’s performance is harmonious with other elements, notably Roger Suen’s score, which juxtaposes pulsating, foreboding club tracks with mournful string arrangements, and Ante Cheng’s vivid cinematography. Ms. Purple is as heavy on shadow as it is rich in color, putting its characters in a striking palette that conveys the multifaceted nature of Koreatown, which is as much a transitional space as it is culturally specific community. If Chon has a sure hand on the film’s aesthetic, with the editing by Reynolds Barney and Jon Berry recalling the heightened sweep of Terence Malick’s recent output, he seems less certain about whether it’s a two-hander or if Carey is an interlude within Kasie’s enveloping symphony. Vignette-like scenes illustrate Carey’s impulsive, childish nature (his unorthodox caring methods include pushing his father’s sickbed around the neighborhood so the patriarch can get some sun) but he remains a curiously aloof presence.

If cutting between the routines of brother and sister creates imbalance, the scenes that focus on the tentative renewal of their bond are amongst the strongest in the film. When Kasie, still too awkward around her brother to simply ask if he wants to go out for ice cream, resorts to getting his attention with a kick. It’s the kind of overly dramatic behavior that will be embarrassingly recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a similar social or familial situation while the giddy game of pool that follows captures the rush of reconnection. Chon and co-writer Chris Dinh explore the sibling relationship in a largely understated manner. The scene in which Kasie asks Carey if he knows how she makes a living sidesteps confrontational cliché, instead suggesting both acceptance and buried shame with a few nuanced beats.

There are times when the silences don’t quite pass muster. As is often the case with character-oriented independent features, Ms. Purple can occasionally feel padded with some shots of characters looking burdened by life’s travails not necessarily adding anything regardless of how artfully composed they may be. For the most part, though, it’s a genuinely poignant drama bolstered by Chu’s breakthrough performance and imbued with Chon’s unerring sense of place.