Year: 2019
Director(s): Justin Chon
Writer(s): Justin Chon, Chris Dinh
Region of Origin: US
Rating: n/a
Color, 87 mins

Synopsis: A young woman who works as a karaoke hostess in Koreatown reconnects with her estranged brother in the final days of their father’s life. (Source)

Justin Chon’s previous film, Gook, signaled the arrival of a voice that demanded to be heard. It was a soulful dissection of Korean/Asian race relations amidst the tumultuous L.A. riots. With Ms. Purple, Chon proves that his previous achievements weren’t a fluke. He’s got an innate skill for capturing Asian American experience and the complexities of being a stranger in a strange world – both psychologically and geographically. The result is another intimate portrait of cultural dissonance, identity, family and death. Chon’s focus feels even more inescapable this time out. It spills out of Karaoke bars and into hushed, domestic uncertainty. Replete with affecting performances from Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee, this is a powerful story about moving forward without forgetting the past.

At night, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is a doumi girl trying to escape pain through self destruction. She hosts unruly men in karaoke bars, keeping them company and obliging any or all odd requests. Her and her colleagues are given free reign to go as far they want, and many men search for ways to abuse their advantageous situations. Apart from this, she tends to her sickly father. He’s basically on his death bed, but she refuses to put him in hospice care. After his live-in caretaker quits unexpectedly, Kasie calls up her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), for help. Though Carey had a big falling out with their dad years ago, he answers his sister’s call. Reunited under tragic circumstance, the two finally face years of repressed trauma but also realize how much they need each other.

On every level, Chon’s film is a multi-faceted experience that gets deeper by the minute. At the heart of it all, Chon picks apart the quintessential conundrum that every first generation Asian American must face. How is it possible to find an identity of our own when so much of us is tied to our parents? But even this is just a starting point. As Chon unpacks the singular struggle of children trying to find their own way, he confronts the way women are treated within a specific bubble of Korean American culture. Together with a keen depiction of Kasie and Carey’s relationship, the film doesn’t hold back. Chon masterfully presents his story with an understated dread, hinting that anything could blow up without notice. With two central and their unmistakably deep wounds, the film captures a bond that transcends pain and transforms into an unsaid love and affection. 

Ms. Purple review Tiffany Chu

A film like this is only as good as its leads, and luckily, Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee are incredible. As the film’s anchor, Chu’s Kasie embodies the complexity and depth, rendering a character who feels deeply yet tries to numb it all. She effortlessly showcases the entire gamut of human emotion, ofttimes with understated confidence. Like the story, there’s also a quiet strength to her, balancing subtle dread with genuine warmth. Opposite, Lee matches Chu note for note, but in his own way. As Carey, Lee is more open to how he feels, hiding less and letting it always overflow. He has some of the film’s best moments, contrasting levity and spontaneity with Kasie’s darker story – even while having a more tormented frame of mind. Together, these two pack a huge wallop, investing us deep into the story’s tonal shifts with sincerity. 

All in all, Ms. Purple is both singular but relatable. Chon has made his story resonate whether you’ve experienced its elements of cultural conflict or not. It’s also a non judgemental look at survival, depicting acts of human connection in ways that are untethered from sentiment and attachment. It’s here where the film hits the most, pinpointing how grace finds us even when we aren’t searching for it or feel that we deserve it. 

SG