(Not rated, 1:27)
Following two deeply damaged siblings, each lacking a place in the world, Justin Chon’s “Ms. Purple” seems named not for a character, but for a state of mind that’s been a long time brewing.
Purple is also the color of the traditional South Korean dress obediently worn one evening by Kasie (Tiffany Chu), 23, at the insistence of her rich, entitled boyfriend (Ronnie Kim). But in the United States, where the film takes place, purple vividly signifies daring and defiance, independence and strength. That demands a personality to match, and Kasie is a woman controlled by the demands of men. To her fond-enough boyfriend, she’s property, a sex partner and a compliant plus-one. To the boozed-up businessmen at the high-end karaoke bar where she works as a hostess, she’s a body to be fondled and shared and sometimes drugged. And to her dying father (James Kang), lying comatose in her childhood home, she’s a caregiver whose devotion is necessarily unrequited.
When the aide tending to her father abruptly leaves, Kasie is forced to contact her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), for help. A lost soul who lives in a trailer and wanders aimlessly from bar to slot machine, Carey urges his sister to place their father in hospice care. She refuses: Flashbacks have already shown us the mother who ran off when the siblings were little, and the wounds her abandonment left on the family. Maybe now, in their father’s final days, the two can find a way to reconnect.
Set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, “Ms. Purple” is a moody, downbeat drama soaked in color and saturated with sadness. Whether highlighting subtle emotional shifts or the crude debauchery of Kasie’s clients, Ante Cheng’s camera is restless and roaming, traversing neon-washed streets and rowdy club gatherings with equal finesse. Chu’s slender fragility and marvelously expressive face drive the story, but Lee has some lovely, impetuous moments as Carey, unable to tolerate being cooped up, trundles his father’s hospital bed around town with casual but not unkind disregard for its oblivious occupant.
Scenes like these inject sweetness and levity into an open-ended, essentially melancholic script (by Chon and Chris Dinh) that’s obsessed with obligation, stasis and loss. Glimmers of hope, like the friendly valet parker (Octavio Pizano) who invites Kasie to his sister’s quinceañera, also lighten the tone and add substance to a movie that can feel almost too delicate, as if not much were holding things together.
Until, that is, Kasie finally becomes the kind of woman who can wear the color purple.