Justin Chon starred in Seoul Searching which premiered at Sundance in 2015. In 2017 his second film as director, Gook, played the fest. Now he’s back with Ms. Purple, an equally personal story from a growing filmmaker using the tools he’s learned to tell authentic stories.
Kasie (Tiffany Chu) scrapes together a living as a hostess at Koreatown karaoke clubs where she quietly takes abuse from privileged rich men. She’s caring for her father (James Kang) at home and refusing to put him in hospice, even though her live in nurse quits. She gets her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to come help.
Ms. Purple is a much more contemplative film than Gook. Gook had the volatile energy of the LA Riots and all the community racism. There’s less of a definitive end point for Kasie’s story. She’s living paycheck to paycheck so even when she gets a windfall it will only last so long.
Through flashbacks we learn more about how their father struggled to provide and their mother abandoned both him and the kids. That explains their devotion to him, and also explains Kasie and Carey’s pain being abandoned. These are universal themes but seen through a very specific lens of Asian immigrants and their culture.
Violence in karaoke rooms seems to be a real problem. I’m not surprised rich guys get drunk and high and turn violent. I’m glad Chon can shine a light on that.
One sacrifice Kasie makes is hooking up with a boyfriend she doesn’t like because he’s rich and willing to provide for her. She shouldn’t have to and fortunately she draws the line somewhere. Meanwhile, Carey shakes things up by pushing his father’s bed outside and around the city. They find moments of light wherever they can have it.
These stories of quiet lives and perseverance give new actors a chance to shine. I suppose Tiffany Chu is only new to me but she is extraordinarily sympathetic and fierce. Ms. Purple is only Lee’s second movie after Spa Night which shows just how lacking roles for Asian actors are even when they star in acclaimed films.
I look forward to seeing Chon tell more stories that are personal to him, either giving these cast members or new actors more great roles to explore.