'Ms. Purple': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Ante Chen/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A sensitive, if less crowd-pleasing, sophomore effort.

Justin Chon, whose 'Gook' won a Sundance audience award in 2017, returns with a quieter drama.

A very different film than one might expect after the loose, shambling comedy Gook, Justin Chon's Ms. Purple dwells quietly in the limbo of those waiting for a loved one to die. A young woman who works as a karaoke "hostess" in order to support her comatose father gets to reconnect with her estranged brother in this gorgeously shot and sensitively acted drama, a demonstration of range from the actor-turned-director.

We open on a father (Young-Il, played by James Kang) as he primps his young daughter, sadly preparing to take her and her brother to see their mother. It's not clear until later flashbacks whether this is a visit to her grave or something stranger. But we're clearly meeting a family abandoned and adrift, a fact underlined by the score's mournful string section. Years later, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is at her father's bedside, changing bags on his IV and tending to bedsores.

We glimpse her life at the nightclub, where women stand in lineups to be chosen by party-minded businessmen. Though Kasie is beautiful, something in her demeanor makes her the last chosen, and the disappointed men who wind up spending time with her cheat her when it's time to pay the bill. She returns to the very small house she grew up in and now shares with her father, only to learn that his nurse can no longer afford to work for the pittance Kasie pays. Caring for him full-time will be an unmanageable burden, and Kasie calls brother Carey (Teddy Lee) — long absent, for unexplained reasons — in hopes that he'll help share the work.

The film splits its attention between the siblings' warm but slow-moving reconnection and the perhaps dangerous stuff they get up to when they're apart. Kasie is becoming something of a kept woman with Tony (Ronnie Kim), a man who likes taking her to social affairs; left to his own devices (and perhaps, though it isn't shown, feeling the aftermath of some substance abuse), Carey tends to his father in irresponsible ways. He wheels the sickbed outside to get some sun, then out onto the streets of their Los Angeles neighborhood, carrying him up to rooftops and into internet cafes.

We suspect something dramatic will happen on one of these fronts — when Tony buys Kasie a custom-made hanbok (a Korean traditional dress), it's clear he feels he owns her — but Ms. Purple is far less plot-driven than its predecessor, and more interested, in an unpushy way, in the dynamics of its small family. Chon and Chris Dinh's screenplay rarely spells out what Kasie is feeling, but the pic's identification with her psychological state is strong: Lenser Ante Cheng, who shot Chon's Gook in crisp monochrome, cast a lush spell when Kasie goes out into the night, with colors and textures reminiscent of Christopher Doyle's work with Wong Kar Wai. Step printing in some scenes underlines her detachment from the world she finds herself living in, while intense vignetting in shots near Young-Il's sickbed suggest the extent to which caring for him consumes her energy. Repeated shots of isolated palm trees will be understood near the story's end, which makes some things explicit while leaving plenty for the viewer to imagine.

Production companies: Plan Zero Productions
Cast: Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano, James Kang, Ronnie Kim
Director: Justin Chon
Screenwriters: Justin Chon, Chris Dinh
Producers: Alex Chi, Justin Chon, Alan Pao
Director of photography: Ante Cheng
Production designer: Bo Koung Shin
Costume designer: Eunice Jera Lee
Editors: Reynolds Barney, Jon Berry
Composer: Roger Suen
Casting director: Michael Beaudry
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Adriana Banta, 30West

In English and Korean
86 minutes