In Ms. Purple, director Justin Chon uses the seedy underbelly of LA’s Koreatown as a backdrop for the delicate story of a ruptured family. Co-written by Chon and Chris Dinh, and featuring Tiffany Chu in a standout performance, the film which played at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Janary explores themes of sacrifice, loyalty, and the loss of innocence.
Kasie (Chu) is a young woman working K-Town’s karaoke bars (donning heavy makeup, tight dresses and dangerously high heels and getting paid to entertain men in private booths in clubs) in order to cover her dying father’s care. When the latest live-in nurse quits, Kasie is in a bind. Refusing to place her comatose father in hospice, Kasie reaches out to her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) for help.
Periodic flashbacks reveal how the family of four became three, and then ultimately just Kasie and her father. The family’s disintegration is a far cry from the American dream that Kasie’s parents left Korea for, and their circumstances well below the stereotype of Asians as the model minority.
As Kasie, Chu lends a haunting, graceful presence, like the prima ballerina in a tragic ballet. Caught between her ailing father and the unfulfilling work that pays for his care, Kasie’s life is as if on hold. A repeat client from the karaoke bar sometimes sees her outside of K-Town, paying a large sum to pretend to be a couple. For those several hours, she can almost forget the cycle she’s trapped in, until reality sets in.
“You brought a doumi to a wedding?” scoffs a friend, using the Korean term for girls who work the karaoke bars. Kasie flees like Cinderella from the ball at midnight, but her patron is no Prince Charming.
Interwoven with Roger Suen’s melancholy score, Ms. Purple recalls Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Academy Award-winner Moonlight in its beautiful yet unflinching portrayal of desperation and its characters’ drive to survive at all costs.
While the dialogue occasionally falls flat, thwarting certain scenes — in particular exchanges between the two siblings — from reaching their potential, the camerawork, editing and rich visual palette maintain the film’s lyrical flow. A smattering of well-timed jump cuts provide painful reminders of the past; from Kasie as a child wearing a hanbok in preparation to see her mother to an adult stumbling down the street in the early hours of the morning in a similar outfit, or her and Carey, as kids, curled up side by side on the couch, and then later as adults.
It would be remiss not to mention Ms. Purple’s strong sense of place, for the story could not take place in any other K-Town. Where else are there palm trees and such rich sunsets? Tonally, though, the film is less a love letter to Los Angeles than it is a suicide note.
Despite some occasional stumbles, Ms. Purple proves that Chon, also an actor, is a major talent to watch.