Familial relationships are the most complex type humans can have. Relationships between parents and their children, and those between siblings can be fraught with just as much tension and resentment as there is love. In Ms. Purple, written and directed by Justin Chon and co-written by and Chris Dinh, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) struggles to provide care for her terminally ill father, while trying to connect with the brother she no longer shares a bond with.
As children, we never consider the possibility that one day all the plans we make for our future won’t become reality. We never imagine the parents we looked to for support would one day rely on us for care, or that they may even turn on us. As a young girl Kasie’s father showed her love, attention by doing little things like making sure her hanbok was fixed when getting ready for her mother’s birthday, and told her how pretty she was.
Now, every night she goes to work in the darkened private rooms of a karaoke club in Koreatown, to cater to the whims of drunk business men, who believe their money and status gives them the right to treat the hostesses as they like. Kasie also contends with other hostesses to vie for the attention of these men in the hope her smiles and empty compliments will result in additional tips to pay for her rent and father’s medical expenses.
When her father’s caretaker leaves, Kasie is left with no one to look after him while she works, and having no other options, contacts her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) who has been estranged from their father since he was a teen. While Kasie spends her days putting ointment on bed sores and filling up feeding tubes, Carey wanders aimlessly around the streets of L.A.. Perhaps seeing that he also has no one else to turn to, Carey returns home and they settle into a somewhat uneasy routine that rather than making things easier, is frustrating for them.
For a film that has scenes bathed in shades of blue, red, pink, yellow the title Ms. Purple truly seems to fit it. Though we normally associate blue with the feeling of melancholy, an emotion which is felt throughout the film, purple conveys the sense of uncertainty that surrounds Kasie, Carey and even their father. All three family members are caught in a type of emotional limbo- and physical for Dad -, unable to move forward from certain events of their pasts. Kasie’s life has become one where she feels a sense of responsibility for taking care of the men in her life including Carey.
Though this speaks towards the patriarchal nature of Korean society, it would apply to every culture around the world where the onus of looking after aging and ill parents is generally placed on the daughters. After being told on multiple occasions how much her father relied on her, and saw her as the only person who was and would be there for him, Kasie believes that to turn her father over to hospice care – as she’s been advised to do – she believes that it would be the same as giving up and casting him aside.
Being emotionally abandoned by parents is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child. You feel as though nothing they do will ever be good enough and to protect themselves they withdraw creating a barrier, and Carey’s case that meant leaving home as a teenager. Carey, filled with resentment towards the man who either ignored, or belittled him in front of his sister, now in the position he has to tend to the needs of someone who doesn’t even know he’s there, repeating their past once again. But seeing the anger he’s been holding onto all these years only hurts him, and that he’ll never have the chance to hear his father apologize Carey chooses to reconnect with his sister because she is the only family he has left.
As a film Ms. Purple, doesn’t rely heavily on dialogue, instead the beautifully moody cinematography by Ante Cheng, and acting speaks volumes about what the characters are experiencing internally. Chu gives a wonderful and moving performance, showing Kasie’s inner turmoil over the guilt, inadequacy and shame she feels. It’s evident that Chon has an understanding of how grief can manifest in different ways and for different reasons. Kasie grieves for the dreams that have gone unfulfilled, and Carey for the loving relationship he never had with his father.
Chon shows the burden adult children may feel when looking after ailing parents, the struggle of letting go and the complicated feelings that comes with it. Accepting a past that can never be changed is difficult and can be as painful as the hurt that holds us there mentally and emotionally. Moving on means acknowledging who we are now, is a direct result of events that at times, were beyond our control, but doing what we can to gain control now, whether it be done through an action such as burning something that symbolically represents those defining moments, or making a declaration. Throughout Ms. Purple a haunting acoustic rendition of “Que Sera Sera” plays, and though they can’t be heard, the lyrics still resonate (and are ironic given which parent is being addressed in the song) because while we may not be able to see what the future holds, we have to keep hoping it will be better than our past while working to make the present better.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.