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Kasie refuses to put her father into hospice care. She ignores the pleas from her live-in nurse, who correctly notes that Kasie does not have the means to provide the around-the-clock support her father needs. Ms. Purple slowly reveals why Kasie insists on doing things this way, and the answers are more poignant than you might think. Justin Chon focuses on the Korean community of Los Angeles, with Kasie veering between a hermetically sealed Koreatown and a city that is slow to accept her. This is a film with a committed sense of sadness, although it is never cloying or manipulative. The characters are too proud for that, but they wish they could be stronger.
Chon never quite shows the full extent of the illness that befalls Kasie’s father. Tiffany Chu plays Kasie, and when we first meet her, she’s hustling some anonymous businessmen in a karaoke bar. She provides them companionship while they get drunk, and she works for tips. She gets stiffed one particularly unpleasant evening, so the valet Octavio (Octavio Pizano) takes pity on her. Too self-involved to notice his advances, Kasie would rather just have the money back. She gets desperate, loitering outside nursing homes and begging the workers to visit her father. The situation is pretty grim, at least until Kasie’s estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) returns to help.
The Baby Boomers are only getting older, and there are not enough home health aides to go around. Ms. Purple therefore has the potential to connect with anyone who sees it, since we could always stand to improve our family relationships.
Chon deepens that sense of connection with evocative colors and intense music. Composer Roger Suen prefers a single cello, the classical instrument that gets closest to the human voice, using sad repeated melodies. At first, it seems like this particular story does not need or deserve music this intense, but ultimately the exaggerated effect is the point. The music hits those emotional notes because the characters cannot do it for themselves.
The film’s strong performances push it above most family dramas. As Kasie, Chu carries an incredible weight on her shoulders, and you can see that weight even as she poses for men who look at her like they’re inspecting cattle. Lee’s performance is also well matched with the material, since he evokes a familiar sense of desperation. There is a remarkable scene where he sits outside an arcade, one he’s repeatedly rejected from, because he has nowhere else to go. Watch how the owner takes pity on him, and how he is still too wounded to show he is grateful. Ms. Purple is a film about small gestures, and how they can take on great significance in the right context.
Kasie and Carey share a profound sense of guilt, and that’s largely because of their status as immigrants. The film includes several flashbacks, where we see how their father brought them from Korea to Los Angeles for a chance at a better life. Ms. Purple implies that Kasie and Carey feel like they have failed their father, squandering that opportunity. But coming to America is not a magic bullet to solve this family’s problems, and matters are made worse by a country that does not have the proper infrastructure to take care of the extremely sick. This is not exactly a sad film, but rather a film about sad people. If they can take a break from the crippling guilt, then maybe they will see they already have the support they need.
Ms. Purple opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.