Reading the synopsis for Ms. Purple before the world premiere screening, I was worried that this would be a film that leans heavily into sentimental weepie territory; the “dying father reunites brother and sister” premise seems ripe for a certain kind of conventional, easily manipulative sentimentality. After the critical acclaim of writer-director Justin Chon’s previous effort, Gook (2017), I remained hopeful that he would bring something fresh to this specific type of narrative. Thankfully, Chon is able to avoid many of those cloying pitfalls with his new film, combining a cultural specificity and a thematic universality into a story of familial bonds.
Tiffany Chu stars as Kasie, a Los Angeles Koreatown resident struggling to take care of her dying father at home, while working as a karaoke hostess. She feels uncomfortable in her line of work, and in her tumultuous relationship with her rich suitor, who lends her money while demanding her loyalty. Once the nurse taking care of her father quits, the stress piles up. Refusing to put her father into hospice, Kasie resorts to contacting her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee) for help. Carey reluctantly agrees, leading both characters to reconnect, revisit the past, and work through the emotional trauma that has driven the family apart.
Chu and Lee ably carry the emotional weight of Ms. Purple, both of them so effective at conveying a sense of inner turmoil that when it all starts to unfurl, I believe every second. Kasie and Carey’s relationship is instantly recognizable to anyone who has siblings of their own, sometimes oscillating between comfortable warmth and bitter resentment, but never losing that sense of love for one another. Kasie’s struggle to care for her father is compounded by the emotional abuse of her suitor and the customers she deals with at work, leaving her in a broken state that pushes her to cling to every memory of her relationship with her father (many of which are given to us in flashbacks). We can visibly see the toll this all takes on Kasie in Chu’s understated and heartbreaking performance.
Meanwhile, Carey’s troubled upbringing with his father makes his internal conflict tangential to Kasie’s, but still ripe with drama. As his father is bedridden and unconscious, Casey is unable to communicate his grievances, leading him to come up with an alternative plan of action. In the film’s most amusing and unconventional moments, we see Casey push his dad’s bed around town, taking him to watch the sunset and play games, among other things. So much is said without words in these scenes, and much of that is due to Lee’s impressive work.
I often find flashback scenes to be an easy way to add depth to a story bereft of any, but the way Chon implements them here are deeply rooted in the character’s present-day conflicts. One particular flashback near the end of the film, involving two palm trees, perfectly encapsulates the combination of specificity and universality, getting right to the heart of what it means to be an immigrant parent, but also what it means to be a father in general. It is a quietly profound and profoundly moving scene, and the way Chon pays off this moment in the film’s closing shots is extraordinary. All of this is evocatively lensed by Ante Cheng, who does wonders with color and framing here to express the devastating emotions broiling inside of Kasie.
Chon sometimes hits his emotional beats a little too hard, partially due to a beautifully composed but overbearing score that’s pitched at a volume that practically shouts the feelings you should be having in these scenes. Like I said before, Chon manages to sidestep many of the clichés that are common with this type of story, but a little more restraint in a couple of integral moments might’ve helped, especially since there are so many quiet moments, like the palm tree flashback I mentioned, that hit the emotional bullseye that Chon is aiming for.
After the world premiere for Ms. Purple, there was a Q&A, and I was so thrilled to see that the cast and crew was almost entirely Asian or Asian-American. It’s really heartening to see a filmmaker like Justin Chon bring together this group of talented people and create something that can speak to everyone, while simultaneously keeping in touch with a specific cultural sensibility. For that reason, along with the fact that it is also just a really good film, Ms. Purple is a definite must-see when it eventually gets released.