By Yun-hua Chen.
Justin Chon, the American actor of Korean descent who made his name since his role as Eric in The Twilight Saga a decade ago, has established an increasingly distinct directorial voice addressing Asian-American stories and strikes a chord with ethnic minorities who rarely enter the mainstream in Hollywood (especially before the success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018). In his third feature Ms. Purple, following Man Up (2015) and Gook (2017), a young Korean American woman Kasie works as a karaoke hostess in L.A.’s Koreatown at night, also called a doumi girl, and takes care of her bedridden and vegetated father during daytime. Refusing to take the father into a hospice, she struggles between her daytime familial duty as a daughter and nighttime job handling intoxicated wealthy men. When their in-home nurse quits, she is forced to ask her estranged and adrift brother Carey to move back and help with the caretaking. Meanwhile, she becomes romantically involved with a young sugar daddy Tony who pays for her escort and sex service as well as a cheery Hispanic valet parker Octavio who gallantly helps when she is pushed to the ground by stiffing customers.
The film starts with Kasie walking down a boulevard in a purple Hanbok, followed by a medium shot of a palm tree against the blue sky. We later find out that the Hanbok is a present from Tony and Kasie looks good in purple – hence the film title. The image of a Hanbok is also connected to several flashbacks of her childhood; as a child she is also dressed in Hanbok by her father when they go to knock on the door of the runaway mother’s new house. Somewhat heavy-handedly, the Hanbok and palm trees are two of Chon’s key symbols throughout the film; the Hanbok signifying Kasie’s Korean root and value system whereas palm trees are foreign plants which become rooted in the USA – summing up Chon’s intention of tackling issues of integration and cultural conflict which are pertinent to migrant communities who straddle between diverse cultures and customs. Under Chon’s portrayal of Asian American dysfunctional family, Kasie is an archetype of the second-generation American who still follows principles of Confucian filial piety, in striking contrast to Tony’s cut-throat individualism, materialism and exclusive focus on self-interest.
Intercutting between Kasie and Carey who are accompanied by respective scores, their narrative threads run in parallel to each other. As Kasie accompanies Tony to luxurious engagement parties, Carey wheels the father’s bed around town for sunning outings or his usual gaming in the internet cafe. While Kasie plays her role as an arm candy and drinks champagne in a corner, Carey enjoys the more down-to-earth side of L.A. Their feelings of hope and tranquility hit a peak when the siblings go out to share an ice-cream, but a dip right afterwards brings them back to ground zero. If the alternation between Kasie and Carey is sometimes repetitive, the narrative structure remains classical with carefully-timed protasis, epitasis and catastrophe.
From the cast to the crew, Ms. Purple assembles a fantastic team of top-notch Asian-American film professionals. Tiffany Chu’s presence in the film naturally radiates Kasie’s unwavering energy and gentle stubbornness. Dialogues being scarce, her performance is subtle, nuanced and multilayered, expressing the full spectrum from beaming with joy to drowning sorrows. Under Ante Cheng’s direction of cinematography, camera lingers on the light of dawn and sunset with orange hues; handheld images are fluid and stay close to the characters. Nocturnal shots are predominantly filtered through somber blue, in which Tiffany Chu’s beautiful profiles by the sea or within the hustle and bustle of metropolitan nights are bathed. Accompanying the suggestive imagery, Roger Suen’s score is fittingly melancholy and emotion-infused, whereas the production designer Bo Koung Shin contributed to the contrast between Kasie’s house decorated with flowery wallpapers reminiscent of Korean motives and Tony’s perfectly white mansion of contemporary design.
The foregrounding of cultural interface can add extra humor, such as the moment when Kasie mishears Octavio’s pronunciation of “valet” for “ballet” for “b” and “v” are often confused in Spanish. Yet the idealized image of Octavio’s large extended family in contrast to Kasie’s dysfunctional nuclear family can feel a bit contrived and oversimplified. Also, at times the abundant use of flashbacks which scatter around to bring backstory out of the shadows seems redundant and unnecessary. All imperfections aside, Ms. Purple is a mature piece of filmmaking about a young woman’s noble fight for her loved ones despite childhood trauma and hardships fights. It is also an important story to tell about Asian Americans’ dilemma between personal sacrifice demanded by filial duty and the pursuit of individuality, all the while being engrossed in its well-tuned ambiance and contemplative mood.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.