Kasie looks fashionable in any clothes, even including traditional purple Korean garb. Unfortunately, abandonment issues have not worn so well on her. It is painfully obvious her mother’s desertion has made it acutely difficult for her to let go of her ailing father, but a potential reconciliation with her semi-estranged brother could help in Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple, which opens today in New York.
Sadly, Kasie’s essentially comatose father has no real quality of life left, but she still dutifully nurses him. To pay his medical bills, she works as a doumi hostess in a hedonistic Koreatown karaoke, where she is often forced to accept sex-work side gigs. When the visiting nurse abruptly quits, Kasie is forced to reach out to her brother Carey for help. Much to her surprise, he agrees.
As we see from flashbacks, Kasie was always her father’s favorite, which made their mother’s abandonment even more difficult for him. Yet, Carey tries to do right by his dying father. However, he will be even more concerned about the demeaning treatment Kasie receives, both at work and from her playboy lover, Tony.
Ms. Purple is certainly not a slam-bang kind of film. Far from plotty, it is a quiet, moody character study, with a vibe and sensibility not so very different from vintage Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo being a particularly apt comparison). Hou is quite the name to invoke, but Chon’s assured hand warrants the guarded comparison. However, Chon’s film has a much harder edge, especially when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of sex-related work.
Like Hou had Shu Qi in Mambo, Chon has the advantage of a luminously expressive star turn from his lead, Tiffany Chu, who is utterly arresting and absolutely devastating. The quietly understated sibling rapport she and Teddy Lee forge together is also eerily potent. From time to time, Octavio Pizano provides some relief from the melancholy atmosphere with his memorably idiosyncratic portrayal of his name-sake Octavio, a smitten former co-worker, who would probably be good for Kasie.
Ms. Purple is smaller in scale than Chon’s electric directorial debut, Gook, but it is still a worthy follow-up. The themes are more universal this time around, but Chon and co-screenwriter Chris Dinh (Crush the Skull) squarely center them in the Korean American first- and second-generation experiences. In a departure from the black-and-white of Gook, cinematography Atne Cheng dramatically saturates the colors, but in ways that complement the lonely, after-hours ambiance. Highly recommended for those who can handle some raw, straight-no-chaser sibling drama, Ms. Purple opens today (9/13) in New York, at the Quad.