In just two films, Justin Chon has become one of the most interesting and unique directors working today. With “Gook” he brought a Korean-American perspective to the 1992 LA Riots, told with gorgeous black and white images and a clear knack for finding under-the-radar talent. Now, with “Ms. Purple”, despite also having a small partially Kickstarter-funded budget, it feels like Chon has taken a gigantic step as a filmmaker.
One of the first things you notice about the film is its beauty. The beauty of the lighting. The elegance of Chon’s framing. How gorgeous his characters are. “Ms. Purple”, among other great qualities, is one of the most enjoyable films to look at this year. The visual style throughout, as well as the color-grading, has major echoes of Wong Kar-Wai (which is an automatic draw for me). Yet, Chon and cinematographer Ante Cheng bring their own more modern style to the film to make for a stunning visual experience.
It is in the beauty of the images though, that a story far less pretty and more somber resides. “Ms. Purple” is about a woman taking care of her terminally ill father and needing to reach out to her estranged brother for help. It is about the mending of that relationship and coming to terms with the legacy of their father and their childhood. But, most profoundly, “Ms. Purple” is a film about how sickness and death can take over our lives in insidious ways to the point that we forget to actually live. It is about how the fear of losing someone can make you lose yourself.
Kasie, played brilliantly by newcomer Tiffany Chu, set aside college to care for her father. She was pursuing her passion for piano, but now she hasn’t touched one in quite some time. Somewhere along the way her father’s sickness turned terminal, but Kasie is still caring for him in their childhood home. People keep telling her to move him into hospice care, but she can’t stand the thought of it even after her home nurse quits. So she works nights as a karaoke hostess to pay the bills, which essentially turns into a kind of sex work whether she intended it to or not. Kasie is so far afield from her true passions and self, ashamed of having to do what she does for money but unable to bare the guilt and grief of having to send her father into hospice. She enlists her brother to help with their father and as they all slowly start to repair their familial bonds, she starts to come back to life and take control of her situation again.
“Ms. Purple” is a powerful portrayal of grief and how it can be so much more complex when the death of a loved one happens so slowly. It is a distinctly Korean-American story about the sometimes complicated relationships first generation children have with their parents. It is an empathetic and dignified story of sex work and the dangers that exist for workers. “Ms. Purple” is a fantastically complex and layered film and it tackles everything with a beauty and grace that is so impressive for a filmmaker only on their second feature film. It is a film I will surely be coming back to for future viewings.