Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano, and James Kang. Written by Justin Chon and Chris Dinh. Directed by Justin Chon.
Kasie asks her brother Carey if he knows how she’s been getting by. It’s an awkward moment; Kasie is a doumi in Koreatown, a paid karaoke hostess who clearly doesn’t enjoy her work.
Carey stumbles through an answer before finally latching on to his feelings: “I don’t judge you for doing what you had to do.”
There’s a lot of judging in Ms. Purple, but as Kasie and Carey deal with the reality of a messed-up family and a father on his deathbed, they hang on to one thing they each seem to believe — that if there’s to be any judgment, it won’t be passed by one sibling on the other.
There is so much pain in this film, so much sadness and emptiness tempting us to look away, yet in the midst of despair is the tender, heartbreaking assurance that Kasie and Carey know each other. Cowriter-director Justin Chon (whom I really liked in the underappreciated 21 & Over) doesn’t tie things up nicely the way we might like, and his theme is stronger as a result. We may not know A or B, but we know this.
I recently (kinda) lamented the seeming ubiquity of the Asian American generations movie, and God bless Chon for not going there. There are things in this film I’ve never seen, sequences best left unspoiled, ‘though I will say that most of the second act is a wonderful display of creative writing and thoughtful filmmaking. Carey, unemployed and left to care for his father, finds beautiful ways for them to spend time together, unexpected rays of warmth in a pretty bleak movie.
Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee are excellent as Kasie and Carey. If they don’t break your heart in the quiet moments they spend together, you are made of pretty tough stuff. I just wanted to hug them about a hundred times each. Chon trusts them to sit still, and the stillness is one of my favorite things about Ms. Purple.
It’s one reason I cannot stand the film’s score, or the way it’s handled through much of the movie. It’s too loud, for one thing, and too manipulative, in a way the script and camera mostly are not.
There’s one moment in the middle where the background music is completely different. Sweet, gentle, subtle, and — not background music at all, it turns out, but part of the action within the movie. If the loud parts of the movie music exist so this moment can be a contrast, our director can almost be excused because I went for it hard. Still, there’s no reason to return to the loud musical themes, which the film does in its third act. Darn it.
It’s quite a lovely film, and definitely worth checking out. I’m giving it 8 out of 10, the spot between “liked it” and “loved it.”
* * *
Ms. Purple opens today, September 6, in Los Angeles and next Friday, September 13, in New York City.