Complex and moving ruminations on the meaning of family along with impressive acting by Tiffany Chu make “Ms. Purple” a touching and heart-wrenching gem. However, the movie still fails its standout performances with a somewhat rushed and incoherent beginning.
Justin Chon, actor of “Twilight” fame, further proves himself as a directorial talent to look out for. His first film, 2017’s “Gook” managed to secure critical acclaim for a debut and detailed an unlikely partnership between Korean and African Americans in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots.
The film introduces Kasie (Chu), a young Korean American woman living in Los Angeles’ Koreatown who must take care of her ill father. Kasie knows her father is about to die but refuses to put him into hospice. Instead, she works as a karaoke hostess, barely making a living for herself and her dying dad. When her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) shows up to help her take care of their father, Kasie must make a choice for both herself and their father.
The desire to take care of family and the limits on this love provide the driving themes throughout the film. The two siblings present opposite responses to familial trauma and this contrast gives the film its structure. While Kasie gives up her dream of becoming a pianist and spends her life taking any job she can to care for her father, Carey’s absence for much of this time presents an effective foil to her devotion.
However, Kasie’s unceasing love does not make for a morally didactic movie that falls over itself to praise her selflessness. Carey’s presence helps Kasie reimagine what familial love can look like by pushing against the draining way in which she has loved her father.
The film then remains in a thematic gray area that avoids any overarching generalizations, making for a film that is less immediately satisfying but allows viewers to grapple with these questions of obligation and commitment on their own.
Even though the film poses strong questions, the premise in which Kasie and Carey’s current state of affairs comes about remains unclear. This framing ends up making the details of the siblings’ situation confusing and vague, limiting the power of their emotional responses.
For instance, Kasie and Carey’s parents are divorced, and their mother has already disappeared by the time the film begins. There are hints that the divorce and the relationship between the siblings’ parents were toxic and traumatic, but the motives of Kasie’s ardent caretaking of her father and Carey’s estrangement from the family are left unsatisfyingly hazy.
The film manages to offer a candid look at various responses to familial trauma, but its lack of specificity leaves these reactions floating without any solid plot foundation.
Almost in spite of the backstory that begs to be expanded on, Chu’s acting commands each scene through its sheer control and range of emotions. The film is not filled with dialogue, but what Chu does not explicitly say is portrayed through her facial expressions.
Kasie’s often feeble and defeated expression speaks to the hardships she has had to endure, even though the film leaves everything she has had to face largely unspoken. Similarly, each furtive moment of joy she experiences with Carey or her friend Octavio (Octavio Pizano) is perfectly captured by Chu’s face. In these moments, she manages to let go of the tension that her face usually carries throughout the film.
The notion of having only a few lines of conversation at first appears to drag the film down and leave it without substance. However, this lack of dialogue allows for stellar acting performances like Chu’s that breathe life into the movie and outweigh any weaknesses in the film’s sparse plot.
At its core, “Ms. Purple” is an artistic, soft-spoken family drama that centers on the difficult decisions that nearly all families must make when loved ones near the end of their lives. The film does not try and claim that there is any right answer to these painful moments. Instead, it examines some of the potential solutions to such impossible problems in minute detail despite its shaky premise.