Titled for the hue associated with mourning in Korean culture and featuring a sister and brother, their dying father, childhood trauma and symbolic palm trees, “Ms. Purple,” opening Friday at the Embarcadero, is a gorgeously melancholy mood drama.
Filmmaker Justin Chon, whose “Gook” was a black-and-white indie with a Greek-tragic element set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, tells a more intimate story, in saturated colors this time, again focusing on struggling siblings in L.A.’s Koreatown.
Twenty-three-year-old Kasie (San Jose native Tiffany Chu) works nights at a karaoke club, where she provides companionship to drunken, unruly men.
At home, Kasie dutifully attends to her terminally ill father (James Kang), whose care she funds with club earnings and cash she receives from her wealthy boyfriend (Ronnie Kim).
When her father’s live-in nurse abruptly quits, a desperate Kasie, refusing to place her father in a hospice, contacts her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee). Carey agrees to help Kasie care for their dad.
The two reconnect.
Flashbacks inform viewers that Kasie and Carey’s mother deserted the pair when they were kids. Both remain damaged. The adult Kasie looks so gloomy that pleasure-seeking men at the club stiff her. Carey is directionless and restive. At one point, he leaves the house and drags his father through the streets on his roller bed.
More depth and nuance would have resulted in a stronger, richer drama. The dialogue is sketchy, and the Carey character is underdeveloped, in Chon’s screenplay, cowritten by Chris Dinh.
But Chon depicts predicament engrossingly and creates immensely sympathetic characters in the visually stunning and superbly moody movie about a broken family and a sacrificing daughter.
Ante Cheng’s cinematography compellingly conveys the tone Chon is seeking: neon lighting in the karaoke club turns Kasie’s already forlorn face literally blue; the hazy air at dawn is purple, the color of mourning and Kasie’s traditional Korean dress.
Chon’s ability to employ metaphor effectively, even while overdoing it a little, is reflected in picturesque palm trees on the L.A. skyline — non-native species that Kasie’s father compares to Korean transplants like himself.
Chon also addresses filial piety in Asian culture, failed immigrant dreams and how patriarchal attitudes affect women like Kasie. Chu, with her wonderfully expressive face, creates a beautiful portrait of melancholy and sorrow.
Still, not all is joyless.
When Kasie and Carey go out for ice cream, their dynamics have the positive spirit of a romantic date. A passage set at a quinceanera celebration, where Kasie is welcomed by the loving family of her friend Octavio (Octavio Pizano), simply glows.
Starring: Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano,James Kang
Written by: Justin Chon, Chris Dinh
Directed by: Justin Chon
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes