We should be past the point of excessive praise for a male filmmaker who actually sees women characters as whole people, Justin Chon has — along with his co-screenwriter Chris Dinh — endowed his latest protagonist with so many uniquely human complexities that he does deserve some praise. The rest of it belongs to actress Tiffany Chu, who enriches “Ms. Purple” with a performance that is both vulnerable and fearsome, softhearted and severe all at once. Chu is the heart of “Ms. Purple,” a deeply felt and gorgeously framed portrait of the personal cost of fulfilling one’s filial duty. Through relationships with her dying father, estranged brother, and the men who pay for her company, Kasie (Chu) is forced to reckon with where her loyalties lie — with the men around her or with herself?
“Ms. Purple” opens on a flashback: Young Kasie (Abigail Kim) is being dressed up by her father (James Kang) to visit her mother. “How can your mother not come and see this beautiful princess?,” he asks tenderly. In a following scene, Kasie runs home just as her father’s nurse is packing up to quit, his limp body lying on a bed with a breathing tube. Both scenes are short and to the point, delivering a lot of information with sharp precision. Unwilling to put her dad into hospice care, she calls her brother Carey (Teddy Lee), whom she hasn’t heard from in over a month. Her face alights when he shows up announcing he will help, although he is less thrilled about it.
At night, Kasie works at a Karaoke bar in LA’s Koreatown, where drunk men pay for the pleasure of her company. Chon lights these scenes with saturated pinks and neon blues, the camera mirroring the dizzying circles of the disco ball lights that dot Kasie’s inscrutable face. She chases down a group who stiffs her, only to be pushed to the ground, and a friendly valet named Octavio (Octavio Pizano) helps her up. Though he is sweet, she doesn’t have time for his advances.
Besides, the real romance in “Ms. Purple” is between the siblings, whose tough childhood has made it hard for them to connect. In further flashbacks, we glean that Dad (the movie does not give him a name) wasn’t very nice to Carey, a fact confirmed by Kasie when she tells Octavio that he ran away at age 15 (she eventually softens toward him). As brother and sister reacquaint themselves, Chon gives them a charming interlude normally reserved for a romance. They feed each other ice cream, take silly photos in a photo booth, and smoke cigarettes over a round of pool, all scored by a lively jazz track.
It’s a nice scene, especially since their conversational scenes can feel forced, with both Lee and the script struggling to make their childhood memories sound believable. Though he looks the part of the deadbeat brother, Lee isn’t on Chu’s level, and Chon is wise to work around him. A scene of Carey raging at his dad, who lays motionless in his sickbed, is effective when covered with music; another fun visual is Carey wheeling dad around town on his rolling cot.
“Ms. Purple” stumbles a bit with exposition, including an off-handed reveal that Kasie wanted to be a musician but quit school to care for her father. The movie’s approach to sex work feels one-dimensional and dated for 2019, and the script trafficks in the worst assumptions and cliches about the business. (Although it is refreshing that her brother says he doesn’t judge her). Kasie’s odd claim that the clients remind her of her dad rings false and plays as an unnecessary grab at meaning — other, more nuanced parallels were already there.
The script is better off in more subtle moments, like when Kasie’s mom, in a culmination of the flashback scenes that are sprinkled throughout, shuts the door on her own children. “You have nothing to offer me,” she tells their father. Cutting to the present, the next scene finds a client yelling at Kasie: “Do you know what I just fucking offered you?” A final exchange with her dad, in which he compares their family to two palm trees who have grown roots far from home, is another nice touch.
Kasie gets the final say, and Chon allows her some relief without letting her off the hook. The burden of familial obligation permeates “Ms. Purple” — who carries it and who passes it off, who outruns it and who lets it overrun them. It’s a ripe topic Chon clearly feels deeply, rendered in beautiful cinematography and delicate storytelling. It’s also a uniquely Asian-American story, rooted in loving specificity and beating with a universally human heart.
“Ms. Purple” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.