Siblings reunite as their father lies dying in actor Justin Chon’s third feature as a director, a hard-hitting but ultimately unsatisfying drama that impresses in spurts rather than as a whole.
After an opening flashback in which proud but nervous father Young-Il (James Kang) is shown dressing his young daughter and her brother in their best for an important event—revealed later as a visit to the mother who has abandoned him for another man to beg her to return to the family—the film jumps to the present, where Young-il is lying unresponsive in his bed, being cared for by his now-grown daughter Kasie (Tiffany Chu). She works at a karaoke bar to make just enough to keep him at home, resisting advice to put him in a hospice, but it’s a degrading job, where she must place herself at the disposal of drunken customers who sometimes stiff her for her promised tip. And though she has a well-to-do boyfriend named Tony (Ronnie Kim), he appears to value her not just for the sex, but so she can serve as his date at parties where he goes off with others and leaves her to fend for herself.
A crisis occurs when the nurse Kasie’s been paying to stay with her father during her absences quits, saying she can’t cope anymore and again suggesting the hospice as an alternative. It’s at that point that she calls her brother Carey (Teddy Lee), who left home long ago, to come back and help her. To her surprise, he agrees.
Not that Carey is the best possible caregiver. He’s pretty much a slacker by trade, and decides that he should take his father out of the house for outings, simply wheeling his bed into the street for sessions at cafes where Carey can play video games. But as Kasie goes on with her generally downbeat life, relieved only occasionally by the attentions of Octavo (Octavo Pizano), the nice-guy valet parker at the club who has dreams and a happy extended family, she and her brother reconnect, sometimes getting positively playful (and leaving their father unattended while they go out for a quick bite).
Of course, the sense of stability can’t last, and ultimately Kasie will be forced to recognize that she can’t expect to be able to keep her father and brother at home forever, especially after her disgust over the way she and the other girls at the club are treated leads to a violent confrontation (in which, however, the women exhibit a satisfying sense of solidarity). The film closes with some dreamy scenes that put a period to the family drama—as well as explaining the significance of the shots of palm trees that have periodically been inserted into the film.
“Ms. Purple” isn’t very strong on narrative—it’s more concerned with conveying moods and impressions than with plot, and motivations are merely suggested rather than defined. But it’s stylishly made, in shifting, somewhat blurred images by cinematographer Ante Cheng and editors Reynolds Barney and Jon Berry that carry considerable visual impact. The performances are of a piece with Chon’s vision as well, more opaque and suggestive rather than explicit.
The result is a film that is consistently intriguing, but in the end interesting and sporadically incisive rather than consistently compelling.