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Ms. Purple
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by Jay Seaver

"Karaoke girl's own story."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Justin Chon made a pretty terrific movie a couple years back whose confrontational title ("Gook") and black-and-white photography may have helped make people reluctant to buy a ticket. This time out, the color is right in the more welcoming title, but in a lot of ways the heart of the film is the same - sibling issues, Korean-American family obligation, assimilation - and the story he crafts from those ideas is still compelling.

It opens with a flashback, a father getting his two children ready for a special occasion, fussing rather a bit more over his daughter than his son. Fifteen years later, daughter Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is 23 and has forgone musical training to spend the last few years looking after their dying father, working for tips as a karaoke hostess with the money stretched thin enough that she can no longer pay the undocumented woman who looks after him while she's away. Calling her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to help share the load doesn't feel like a great idea, but it's all she's got. Fortunately, his current couch-surfing options are limited, although he's not entirely inclined to let having to watch a bedridden man cramp his style.

Carey wheeling their father around Los Angeles's Koreatown, hospital bed and all, is an undeniably funny image but Chon is careful not to frame it as a clever solution initially - Carey is making a nuisance of himself and inconveniencing everyone around him - although one shouldn't necessarily feel bad about enjoying it: For all that Carey is mostly finding a way to do what he wants, it's worth noting that Kasie is spending all of her time tending to men on separate fronts: Her father, the handsy creeps at the karaoke bar, the brother who eats all the food, a rich kid she dates hoping he'll be around when she needs someone. It's not entirely a movie about how men just expect women to take care of things (and not just because Octavio Pizano's smitten parking valet is there as an exception), but the dynamic is there and worth noting. There's a great moment in flashback that ties it all together, young Kasie instinctively picking up where her departed mother left off.

Chon does opt to drive the point home a bit more later; this isn't a complex film in that way, but there's nothing wrong with clarity. The present-day plot can at times be fuzzy, a string of small incidents and conversations that have the siblings turning their relationships over and looking at what's underneath as opposed to new challenges arriving that must be resolved. Chon spends much of the film telling the story visually, through lighting and color. Kasie's purple costumes and the similarly-colored night sky indicate sacrifice, right up until the color appears on a brochure for a hospice. It's the other side of the color wheel from the yellowish browns that appear later, in more independent moments, and a strong contrast to the green of a favorite childhood toy. It's a restrained but flexible palette, moving the audience through the pair's world easily..

Tiffany Chu proves to be a solid, winning lead as the woman wearing all that purple, capturing how Kasie has the sort of appealing optimism that can eventually burn her out because she discounts the weight that she's shouldering. Chu is excellent at making how Kasie does things substitute for a lot of verbal explanation, as well as showing the interplay of how she's not always quite able to hold back how she knows even the fun parts of singing at the bar or going out with Tony are kind of creepy and can't always entirely put up the mask she needs. She's unquestionably the heart of this movie but surrounded by a group that slot into their smaller roles well, sometimes kind of simple bit with clear purpose. Teddy Lee is next-most-important as Carey, portraying the things that Kasie is not but also quietly revealing what they've got in common.

Eventually they sit looking at palm trees, the sky a different color, talking about something that has never particularly been at the forefront of the movie but which may be part of why they've been so determined to face their problems alone. It's a quiet finish to a relatively quiet movie, but that's how maturity comes sometimes, getting to a point where you have to take a look at your life and not flee from what you find. Chon proves good at this even as he moves beyond writing the parts nobody else will cast him in.

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originally posted: 09/06/19 03:36:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Justin Chon

Written by
  Justin Chon
  Chris Dinh

  Tiffany Chu
  Teddy Lee
  Octavio Pizano
  Jake Choi

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