MS. PURPLE (2019)
Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano, and James Kang
Directed by Justin Chon
Justin Chon’s follow up to 2017’s critically acclaimed “Gook” is the deeply personal “Ms. Purple” about a brother and sister coping with the impending death of their comatose father. In Korean culture, purple represents mourning and there are various shades of the color in Chon’s beautifully crafted film, from the vibrant hanbok worn by Tiffany Chu’s character Kasie to the various hues that are prevalent in the filmmaker’s third feature. Chon has become an important voice for the Asian-American experience which remains at the forefront of the vivid stories shared onscreen, their impact lingering long after leaving the theater.
Set in Koreatown, Los Angeles, the film follows 23-year old Kasie (Tiffany Chu), the primary caregiver for her terminally ill father (James Kang) who remains bedridden in her home. She spends most of her days tending to his bedsores while live-in nurse Juanita (Alma Martinez) takes care of him at night when Kasie is working as a “doumi” or karaoke hostess. The money is good as doumi girls cater to drunk or coked-up Korean men who pay to keep them company in karaoke rooms located at various Koreatown nightclubs. It’s a risky and risqué job where security is rare, and the threat of assault is always a factor, so the girls watch out for each other to ensure their safety.
When Juanita abruptly quits, Kasie is forced to ask her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to help take care of their father. It’s the last resort since Carey left home at the age of 15 after clashing with the old man and never returned. These days the older sibling spends most of his time hanging out in an internet café with no job prospects on the horizon. Carey surprisingly agrees to share the load and one must wonder why he seems so willing to help after being absent for so long. Sure, it’s the right thing to do and of course, filial piety or “hyodo” as it’s known in Korean is part of the culture, but Carey is not a very traditional person, or he would not have abandoned his father and sister as a teenager. Still, abandonment runs in the family as seen in flashbacks that illustrate how the siblings’ mother disowned them after leaving their father for a wealthy man.
Carey blames his father for his mother’s walkout while Kasie absolves the patriarch from any accountability but there are similarities between the two women. Kasie, like her mother, is a controlled woman. She’s in a relationship with rich playboy Tony (Ronnie Kim) who uses her for sex and to show her off as a trophy at ritzy parties. She sees herself as his girlfriend, but he views her as an escort to manipulate and discard. Like her mother, Kasie is governed by money, in her work and her social life.
As Carey begins to watch over his father while Kasie is out he begins to take his dad out for an occasional spin, minus a car. We watch as he carelessly wheels his father, hospital bed and all, down the streets of LA as onlookers gaze in bewilderment while “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers plays in the background. The scene is both funny and sad.
Chon focuses on the reconnection between Kasie and Carey as the siblings began to function again as a family. The gratifying performances by Chu and Lee are subtle as the film moves along at a relaxed pace. It’s a complete reversal from Chon’s racially tense “Gook” shot in black-and-white. As the title of Chon’s new film suggests, purple is a key color that appears in the form of clothing, transportation, neon lights, and various hues of the sky at dusk and dawn. The camera work by cinematographer Ante Cheng is dazzling at times.
There are also quite a few palm trees that make it into the frame which is significant because they are not native to California as explained to Kasie and Carey by their father in a flashback scene. Chon uses them as a metaphor for immigrants who arrive in California to replant themselves hoping their life will flourish.
Like Lulu Wang, Jon M. Chu, and veteran filmmaker Wayne Wang, Justin Chon has become a significant voice in the Asian-American filmmaking community. He’s come a long way since playing Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” films.