A sharp detour from the deliberately raw feel of his well-received prior “Gook,” which won the NEXT audience award at Sundance two years ago, Justin Chon’s “Ms. Purple” is a character study-cum-mood piece of dolorous style and saturated color. Some may find it a little too mood-driven, with perhaps a few too many dialogue-free, plot-lite interludes of characters looking glamorously angst-ful. But there’s enough substance here to reward the patient in this tale of two disparately isolated siblings reuniting during their father’s last weeks in L.A.’s Koreatown.
Childhood flashbacks scattered throughout gradually clue us to the key event of Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and Carey’s (Teddy Lee) lives: When they were little, their mother walked out on the family, dismissing their father Young-il (James King) as a “loser.” She soon found a more financially advantageous second husband — whom she left in the dark about her prior one, not to mention the kids.
Decades later, Kasie still lives at home with dad, though now he’s bedridden (and seemingly comatose) from a terminal illness never specified. She refuses to put him into a hospice, despite all advice from medical professionals, including the live-in nurse who quits at the start here. No one else will take the gig, so Kasie is forced to ring up Carey, with whom communication has evidently been sparse since he ran away from home at age 15 over conflicts with dad.
After a fashion, Carey does very reluctantly agree to come back home and help. It’s not like he has much else going on — we get the sense he’s adrift, with no visible employment or friends. By contrast, Kasie’s bill-paying responsibilities are many, yet all seem somewhat degrading, as if the onetime serious classical-piano aspirant were punishing herself with them. She’s a hostess at an upscale karaoke bar, forever getting pawed by drunken foreign businessmen. She does have a “boyfriend” in the form of rich clothing-industry maven Tony (Ronnie Kim). He’s young, handsome, generous, and they have good sex, apparently. Yet this relationship also seems to be cash-based, with her primary role as arm-candy at ritzy events where she gets shown off, then ignored.
There’s a somewhat affected (albeit stylish) monotony to the way Chon keeps cutting between the false cheer of Kasie’s dress-up jobs and her depressing home life. But she, and the film, enliven with the return of Carey, whose prankish streak (as well as lingering parental hostility) gets expressed in his taking dad for “outings” behind her back — wheeling his entire hospital-type bed into the street as if it were a wheelchair.
The siblings recover some of their old mutual rapport, despite fundamentally different personalities. Kasie even loosens up enough to accept the non-transactional attentions of Octavio (Octavio Pizano), a valet parker who came to her aid during a karaoke-customer altercation.
Chon and Chris Dinh’s screenplay leaves plenty of blank space for the viewer to fill in the characters’ backstories and motivations. (Tony’s intentions toward Kasie, in particular, remain more cipherous than necessary.) There are scattered confrontations, but not many, and “Ms. Purple” is one of those films that feels longer than it is because too many passages don’t seem to advance what little plot there is.
Nonetheless, those passages are always inviting in sensory terms, with DP Ante Cheng lending a restive, lonely handsomeness to the often nocturnal images. Abetting his often vivid color palette are the contributions of production designer Bo Koung Shin and costumer Eunice Jera Lee. The bass thump and disco lighting of Kasie’s professional party milieus are counterbalanced by mournful strings in Roger Suen’s original score.
Even if you may sometimes wish for a little more psychological insight into their characters, the actors are very good. Chu and Lee both easily sustain sequences where we’re meant to read the maps of the siblings’ souls sans any helpful dialogue. Though not in their class, “Ms. Purple” aims for something of the bruised romance of alienation and ennui that Antonioni made his name on (most notably “La Notte” and “L’Eclisse”). The fact that it even lands in the same ballpark without growing too pretentious or mannered — though it’s admittedly a little of both — is admirable, not least for simply being so out-of-step with any current cinematic vogue.