Actor-turned-filmmaker Justin Chon's Gook was one of the most gratifying new-look indies of 2017, a black-and-white character study that begins like any ordinary urban combat adventure but opts instead to tell a perceptive story of interracial relations in a forbiddingly violent setting — the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as seen from the perspective of a pair of Korean-American brothers whose tiny shoe store sits in the path of the destruction. In other words, a bite-sized film with ambitious implications.
Chon's new one, Ms. Purple, continues the writer-director's tour of his Southern California home turf (he's an Orange County product) with a Korean-American family portrait in the same low-key-but-tense vein. Los Angeles twenty-something Kasie (Tiffany Chu) lives in a modest home with her terminally ill father (James Kang, seen mostly in flashback) and works as a hostess in a Koreatown karaoke club. Which means, in order to afford a home caregiver for her father she has to endure being pawed and humiliated every night by drunken men.
When the caregiver suddenly gives notice, in desperation Kasie turns to her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee), a marginalized, emotionally scarred man evidently still distraught over their mother's abandonment of the family years before. Other people in Kasie's life seem interested in her plight. The club's doorman (Octavio Pizano) invites her to his Mexican family celebrations. And on a more sinister note one of her customers, a piggish, rich businessman (Jake Choi), offers her a sugar-daddy arrangement. But Kasie's life revolves around her father and her undependable brother. Keeping the family together is her only goal, despite everything.
A situation like that opens itself up to a number of narrative pitfalls, mainly of the tried-and-trite variety. Chon and co-writer Chris Dinh avoid most of them. There's a Korean-traditional flavor to the story that Chon carefully tends to without going overboard. Kasie's rapprochement with Carey might have benefitted from a little less pathos, especially in the scenes where Carey takes his comatose dad out for "field trips" to places around town by pushing his bed down the street. But naturally, Kasie and Carey gradually warm up to each other. There's simply no need for a knight in shining armor to rescue our Korean-American princess. Her predicament is something she's going to have to work out for herself.
Actor Chu, star of the TV science-fiction series Artificial, handles a difficult role with a damped-down, underplayed determination that reveals not so much all we want to know about Kasie, but what filmmaker Chu wants us to feel. Trapped by old-country traditions — the title refers to the purple hanbok dress that her overbearing "boyfriend" forces on her — and the brutal realities of a poor family's obstacles in sunny LA, Kasie's response is to suffer silently and let her actions speak louder than words. As in Gook, Chon populates the landscape with visual details that tell us just as much as declarative speeches. That is one of Ms. Purple's strengths as well as its most obvious weakness. This not a typical actors' picture.
The soundtrack music (with its glorious folklorico tone) by composer Roger Suen and the luscious cinematography by Ante Cheng — both of whom worked on Gook — tell much of Kasie's story all by themselves. Chon's screenplay is suffused by a lingering melancholy that nothing can break. Life is hard, people can be cruel, and sometimes we have to pick up a bottle and lay it upside somebody's head to protect the innocent. That's the humanistic through-line of this deceptively simple urban fable. Ms. Purple's cloudy romanticism is something that it, and we in the audience, need to work for. But it's worth it.