Justin Chon (Gook, 2017) returns to Sundance with an intense, though often humorous, family drama, pairing Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee as a brother and sister struggling with their father’s imminent death and legacy of failure. Chu plays Kasie, a deeply devoted daughter, working as a hostess at a Los Angeles karaoke bar and moonlighting as a swaggering young businessman’s paid girlfriend to cover the bills for her bedridden father’s medical treatments. Though her father is mostly nonresponsive, Kasie seems to have sacrificed any ambitions she might have had (and that her father might have had for her) to keep him out of professional hospice care, to keep from taking him out of the home he worked for. Her brother, Carey, is equally adrift, without a job, or apparently a change of shirt, having virtually abandoned the family after escalating fights with his father. Nevertheless, he seems to gain a touch of traction when Kasie, without anyone else to turn to, reaches out to him for help.
With Kasie and Carey’s mother also out of the picture, abandonment is a central fear here, signifying not just a failure of familial devotion (perhaps a legacy of the family’s Korean heritage, though the viewer feels this as a universal value), but also a failure to thrive in a hostile emotional and economic landscape. There are some heavy moments of melodrama from time to time (made heavier still by Roger Suen’s sometimes overwhelming score and a tad too much slow motion), but mostly Chon and editor Reynolds Barney’s creative weaving together of the film’s fragmented timeline is impressive, effectively guiding us toward an understanding of the father’s core desire to give as much support as he needs.
As with Gook, Ms. Purple’s main characters are Korean-American (the father is actually an immigrant), surviving in a dark and deeply unglamorous LA. How often does public transportation feature so prominently in a film set in the city? That’s how needful Chon’s characters are. Ante Cheng’s beautifully atmospheric cinematography creates a persistent melancholy, a tragic, even violent, mood in a city of sun and light. Night and day, Ms. Purple is a film of great light, in fact, the strobes and intimate screens of the club and the long golden hour of Los Angeles, which frequently serves not just as a source of illumination, but as a kind of contemplative space for the characters, so often riven by devastating emotion.
Alongside its visual sense, Ms. Purple’s greatest strength is the natural chemistry between its leads. Chu and Lee capture the interplay of close siblings with a touch more honey than vinegar, but they also have great power when they hover at the edge of estrangement. If the film is sometimes too neatly scripted, this can be overlooked for the excellent performances and the satisfactions of its visual and thematic beauty.
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