Ms. Purple (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): As her father lays dying

Justin Chon’s latest film “Ms. Purple” is a sad tale of a young Korean American woman struggling to keep going despite many hardships in her daily life. Due to the seedy and exploitative nature of her occupation, the movie is quite uncomfortable to watch at times, but it calmly handles its heroine and her daily life with enough sensitivity and empathy, and we are relieved to see some glimpse of hope for her around the end of the story.

During its first act, the movie phlegmatically observes how its heroine works as a ‘doumi’ at a karaoke club located somewhere in the Koreatown area of LA. Every night, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and many other pretty young employees come to that karaoke club which mainly consists of several small private booths for drinking and singing, and she and her work colleagues are demanded to serve drunken male customers in these private booths while occasionally drinking along with them. While they do not provide sex, she and her work colleagues usually have to tolerate being touched or caressed by these inebriated customers, and they cannot possibly complain about that because, well, they may get paid enough in exchange for that

In addition, Kasie really needs money for a desperate personal reason. Her father, who raised her and her younger brother Carey (Teddy Lee) alone since their mother left him for some other guy to provide her wealth and luxury many years ago, has been seriously ill, and Kasie is determined to take care of her father to the end even though he is in comatose state now with no sign of recovery. When a nurse hired by her happens to quit for a better job, she recommends Kasie to take her father to a hospice, but Kasie does not agree to that at all, and we later see her desperately seeking another nurse to hire.

Unfortunately, there is not any nurse available to her, so Katie calls her brother, but Carey, who left his father and older sister some time ago due to his personal clash with their father, does not respond to her immediately. After all, he is an unemployed bum with no visible future at present, and he is more occupied with how he will manage to go through another aimless day.

However, Carey eventually comes to change his mind, and Kasie is delighted to see her younger brother on the doorstep of their home. Although he is not a professional nurse at all, Carey soon gets accustomed to taking care of his father while his older sister is absent, and there is an amusing moment when he decides to take his father out of their home for a while just because he wants to take some fresh air and spend some time at a nearby computer cafe.

Meanwhile, things seem to get a bit better for Kasie. She happens to be associated with one of frequent customers at her workplace, and this dude turns out to be a pretty rich man who may help her in more than one way. As spending more private time with him, she gets paid as much as promised, and she seems to be a little more pleased than usual when he later takes her to a traditional Korean dress shop for buying her a new dress.

Of course, as many of you have already guessed, this guy turns out to be your average free-range rude when he tries to get closer to Kasie, and he also openly humiliates her in front of others when they attend a big wedding ceremony. During this painful moment, the camera only looks at the back of her head as phlegmatically following after her, but her quiet anger and humiliation are palpable to us to say the least.

Compared to this prick and many other disgusting Korean guys appearing in the film, a Mexican American lad named Octavio (Octavio Pizano), who works as a parking lot valet at Kasie’s workplace, is quite kind and decent, and he really seems to be interested in her, but Kasie understandably hesitates. After all, he is from a different ethnic background, and, like many other people coping with low self-esteem, she thinks she is not that worthy of this nice guy.

During the last act, the mood becomes melodramatic as demanded, but the movie still maintains its dry and detached tone even during an intense dramatic moment developed from the unexpected reunion between its heroine and that aforementioned prick. Cinematographer Ante Cheng did a commendable job of vividly presenting the lurid and suffocating aspects of Kasie’s work environment, and we sometimes feel like being stuck in that stuffy karaoke booth along with her and her filthy customers.

While mostly looking docile and passive throughout the film, Tiffany Chu gives a quietly harrowing performance which functions as the tarnished beating heart of the movie, and the other main cast members surrounding her are solid in their respective parts. While Teddy Lee is effective as a pathetic loser, Jake Choi is obnoxious as required by his supporting role, and Octavio Pizano is also fine as one of a very few decent characters around Kasie.

On the whole, “Ms. Purple” is a rather tough stuff while also incidentally reminding me of those old South Korean melodrama films about young and miserable hostess girls, but it confirms again that Chon, who drew lots of attentions for his previous film “Gook” (2017), is a major talent to watch. According to IMDB, he is currently working on a film starring Alicia Vikander, and I certainly have some expectation on that.

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