Directed and written by Justin Chon with Chris Dinh
Starring Jake Choi, Tiffany Chu and Alfredo Tavares
MPAA rating: None, but contains violence, sexual situations, nudity and smoking
Running time: 1 hour and 27 minutes
by Ashley Jane Carrthuers
“They’re all brought here from other places and planted here. Like us.”
Caring for a loved one at the end stage of their life can literally take over your own life. In Ms. Purple, the sophomore film from director Justin Chon, we spend some time in the streets of LA’s Koreatown with Kasie, a 23 year-old girl doing her best to get by day to day. Her father is sick and unresponsive and she is left with the heartbreaking burden of caring for him. Right from one of the first scenes, we see a broken family. Mom has left, leaving Dad with two young children to care for - our protagonist Kasie (played compassionately by Tiffany Chu), and her brother Carey (played sensitively by Teddy Lee).
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn a little more about their family history. At some point after moving to America in order to give his family a better life, Dad is heartbroken by the exit of his wife, who leaves to start a new family with a richer man and never looks back once. It appears that Dad has tried his best in raising his children, but despite his efforts, the family is damaged, with some wounds left unhealed. Life goes on, and now Kasie spends her days caring for her father, and her nights working as a doumi, a paid hostess at a karaoke club. The tone of the film in scenes where Kasie is at work made me anxious. This is one of my nightmare jobs. Karaoke? Always! (I’m looking at you, “Babooshka” by Kate Bush.) Pretending to enjoy spending time with disgusting drunk dudes who paw at you and treat you like shit? Never. But Kasie has no choice. Her father’s health interrupted her schooling and she is just doing what she can to pay the bills. When the nurse that has been helping can no longer be there, she is absolutely desperate for help. When she finds no success in soliciting random nurses in a parking lot, she calls on her brother, Carey.
Carey is a quiet guy. He spends his time playing video games at an internet cafe rather than working, and is very apprehensive about even returning his sister’s phone call. He distanced himself from his family at a young age and is understandably reluctant to show up to help his father. In a moving scene, when Carey first musters up the courage to see his very ill father, we witness raw emotion that truly touched me.
I’m guessing director Justin Chon may have caught a film or two by Wong Kar-wai (one of my ALL-TIME fave rave directors). This film was reminiscent of WKW in a number of ways. The atmosphere, the loneliness, the neon city lights, the strained relationships and, most prominently, the use of step printing. This technique is one of the first characteristics of WKW’s style that comes to mind, having been a fixture from his very first feature film, As Tears Go By. While watching Ms. Purple, I was intrigued from the first scene where I *thought* I maybe saw it. Honestly, it was so subtle at first, I thought it was my imagination - my brain just wishing for it. But throughout, I counted no less than fifteen plus shots making use of this fascinating process to great effect. In most instances, it echoes Kasie’s mental or emotional disconnect from the situation she is physically in. I thought this was really well done. When it’s also used in two of the rare scenes where Kasie is actually enjoying her surroundings and company, that juxtaposition impressed me as well.
This whole situation that the siblings find themselves in is numbing. I’ve had to go through this with my mother, my grandmother (who was like my mom), and my father. In my experience, during that time nothing else matters. Everything stops. Even if you have to be away from their side (which you never want to do, no matter how exhausted you are), your heart is with them, always. Kasie played this eerily spot on. No matter what else she was doing in the film, you could tell she was thinking about her dad. Being the perennially responsible one is unrelentingly draining, but you just keep it up because you really have no other choice. One scene in particular struck me so hard. Kasie is talking with a healthcare professional who is reassuring her that handing her father over to hospice care is the most loving decision, not only for him but for herself as well. She is trying to hold it together, by her very last threads, but her face says so much more than any lines of dialog could have. This is why I think this film is so touching. Perhaps it won’t resonate as much with those who haven’t lived through it, but I assure you, it brought back a flood of memories and emotions to me that rang so true to what I saw portrayed onscreen. However, the real success is that it didn’t make me sad. I would not call this film sad. It’s hopeful really, and restorative. The last 15-20 minutes, in particular, took a turn for me that made me want to watch the movie again as soon as it was over.
There are other relationships shown in the film. Kasie gets roped into a kinda maybe relationship with some rich entitled gross guy whom she first met as a client at work (who buys her the traditional purple garb that gives the film its title), and there is another fellow who pursues her romantically, but I wouldn’t say there is a romantic subplot, thankfully. I appreciated the fact that there isn’t a lot of unnecessary clutter. The major relationship that the movie focuses on is the one between siblings.
I loved every single scene shared between Kasie and Carey. I totally believed they were siblings. Actually, the whole time I was thinking about me and my older brother. We have been through similar situations. Like Carey, he left home at a very young age for reasons I didn’t learn about until decades later. Kasie never blames Carey for leaving. She never tries to make him feel guilty. However she does ask for help and, although he is trepidatious, he shows up. He tries. He really does. He can’t last nearly as long as Kasie, but ultimately, he is there when she needs him the most.
Every family has a different story. As a child, in my very small and extremely sheltered community, our family was the odd one out. It seemed like everyone else had a “normal” family. The older I got, the more I realized that there is no such thing. Just recently, that word took on a whole new meaning that I never understood before. As I begin to build my own new family from the ground up with someone I love very much and go on to experience all new firsts with extended family who treat me with love and acceptance, I believe I’ll think about this movie when I remember the family I was born into. I’ll think of Carey and how regardless of his own history with his father, he was there. I’ll think of Kasie and how she did what she had to, but ultimately, and most importantly, was true to herself. Family is what you make of it. Really, it’s up to you.
Note: Me and my brother don’t talk. It’s complicated. In that way, this movie made me sad, because I don’t know what family tragedy is possibly left that would bring us together again. But in the one in a billion chance he’s reading this - I love you. I’ll always be there for you.