There’s never any question as to the identity of the titular “Ms. Purple” in Justin Chon’s third indie feature. In an opening sequence, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) wanders home in the early morning light, wearing a violet hanbok, a traditional Korean gown, its formality juxtaposed against her bedraggled hair and the smoggy Los Angeles streets. Chon wraps around at the end of the film to show us how Kasie got here, laying out the context that leads to this strange moment in her life, garbed in the culture she doesn’t know, stumbling through the place she’s always been.
Chon, who gained fame as an actor on the Disney Channel and in the “Twilight” films, has of late turned his creative energy to chronicling the intricacies of Korean-American life in Southern California. His award-winning 2017 film “Gook,” set around the L.A. riots in 1992, captured the racial strife that roiled the community. “Ms. Purple” is a contemporary Koreatown piece, a drama about family, gender and the complexities of labor.
Kasie spends her days taking care of her comatose father (James Kang), bedridden in their home, dependent on a feeding tube. She sponges his skin and tends to his bed sores, lost in memories of childhood with her single father, bereft after his wife abandoned their family. At night she dolls herself up to work as a hostess in a karaoke club, tending to and soothing the egos of wealthy men who buy her company for a night of partying.
When the nurse who helps Kasie quits, citing the difficulty of a job waiting for a man to die, Kasie calls her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), who also leads an existence on the margins of society. Like his sister, he’s in limbo. Or is it paralysis? He spends his days getting kicked out of cyber gaming cafes and has little choice but to return home and begrudgingly look after a father he rejected at 15.
“Ms. Purple” has a low-budget, lo-fi aesthetic, which lends immediacy and authenticity. But Chon imbues the film with surreal elements that draw out the numb yet heightened emotional states of the characters. Cinematographer Ante Cheng plays with film speed to blur Kasie’s movements around L.A., and it’s mesmerizing to simply watch her move, reacting or not to the people around her.
Overpowering and sometimes ostentatious music choices sometimes steamroll the tone, but it lends to the sense of unreality as the characters swim and sleepwalk through their lives. As Kasie begs nurses in a hospital parking lot to care for her father, a moment of rock-bottom desperation, a Western-style Mexican guitar tune drowns out her pleas, all sound dropping away save for the music. It’s tonally jarring, drawing attention to but distancing us from her plight. These moments happen frequently, as guitar, jazz or classical music overtakes the scenes. It’s a bold but sometimes distracting choice, as Chon creates a layered aural and visual landscape for the characters, who are simultaneously grieving the past and the future, their present an almost uncanny hallucinatory state.
Chon’s film goes to some brutal places in grappling with the tough realities of death and even tougher facts of life as Kasie faces down the darkest humanity has to offer. Although it’s unclear what it ultimately all adds up to, Chon’s film is as scrappy, messy and earnestly felt as life itself.
★★½ out of 4 stars