Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 87 minutes; in English and Korean with subtitles. No more festival screenings scheduled.
Raw and rough but also delicately beautiful, director Justin Cohn’s sophomore feature “Ms. Purple” is an eye-opening look into the culture of Los Angeles’ Koreatown and a touching portrayal of grief in slow-motion.
Kasie (played by newcomer Tiffany Chu) lives in Koreatown with her father (James Kong), comatose and slowly dying. By night, she works as a karaoke hostess, which is about two shades away from sex work — being companions to rich men in small rooms, partying with them, drinking soju (Korean liquor) and sometimes doing harder drugs.
One day, Kasie is horrified to learn that Juanita (Alma Martinez), the live-in nurse who tends to her dad, is quitting for a less-stressful job. Kasie rejects Juanita’s advice that she put her father in hospice care. Instead, she calls her brother Carey (Teddy Lee), who’s essentially homeless and has been estranged from the family for awhile. Teddy, in need of a place to crash, agrees to help. But his presence opens up some old wounds, which are explained in flashbacks.
Meanwhile, Kasie also is dealing with Tony (Ronnie Kim), a clothing-industry magnate who is sort of a “boyfriend,” though he pays handsomely for the title, and expects a lot for what he’s paying. Kasie is given a chance at a conventional romance with nice-guy Octavio (Octavio Pizano), the valet parking attendant at her karaoke club.
Chon, whose first movie was the urban drama “Gook,” sometimes pauses the story (a script he co-wrote with Chris Dinh) just to allow Kasie and Carey to be themselves, and to let cinematographer Ante Cheng set the mood for their lives in the bustling atmosphere of Koreatown. The story’s surface details, like the karaoke clubs, are specific to L.A.’s Korean-American community — but the emotions Kasie must process, between her duty to her father and her need to care for herself, cross all cultural boundaries.
As Kasie, Chu makes a stellar movie debut. Her range, from quiet despair to faked jocularity to unsheathed fury, is spectacular, and she makes every scene crackle with possibility. Chu makes “Ms. Purple” perhaps the most devastating emotional punch this year’s Sundance Film Festival has delivered.