The heartbreaking but inevitable question of the right way to care for the terminally ill in our family is one that Ms. Purple explores throughout its story. From director Justin Chon (Gook, Man Up), the film tells the story of an Asian American family set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Kasie (Tiffany Chu) struggles to care for her bedridden father as a hostess at a Koreatown karaoke bar and when his in-home nurse quits, Kasie calls her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) for help. Refusing to put the only parent she’s ever known in hospice, Kasie and Carey simultaneously clash and reconnect over the trauma of their past as they attempt to mend the only familial bond they truly have left.
The driving force of Ms. Purple examines the choices and the sacrifices a family must make in order to take care of their own. In the likeness, but in a strikingly different tone, of Lulu Wang’s magnificent film The Farewell, Chon’s film explores the duality of east against west; the idea of the collective responsibility for one another. Although to Carey it might seem that Kasie has given up so much of her life to provide for her comatose father, her individuality and sense of self take a backseat in order for her to do what she must for her dad. This is deeply explored through Kasie’s personality; she is quiet, reserved in her interactions with the sleazy businessmen who visit her karaoke bar and does what she must to earn the money she needs for her father. Ms. Purple flashes back to Kasie and Carey’s childhood throughout the film. In a heartbreaking scene after their father takes the children to see their mother and she refuses them, Kasie sits quietly with her father as he tells her “you’re the only thing I have in this world,” this moment stays with her as she refuses to give up on her father during his sickness.
Setting becomes a character, one carefully observed and participatory in the life of this family. Cinematographer Ante Cheng paints a dreamy and dark Los Angeles, wide and warm shots of different L.A. city streets help to express how cultural heritage informs how life is lived no matter the time and no matter the place. City landscapes and skies are observed but not as much as something known to define L.A. Palm trees are given an overt significance, the camera lingering on them as we see Kasie’s story unfold. In the last act of the film they take on an importance that parallels the journey of this family, where they come from and how place has defined their experience to some extent. In a flashback scene of Kasie and her father sitting outside their house, after Carey has just left home when they are teenagers, they sit pensively looking at the California skyline. Kasie’s father tells her the story of how palm trees are not native to California, brought from other places and rooted there, sort of like them. The two palm trees they are looking at, he tells her, reflect their lives; one will be standing next to the other, always. This poignant story about the love we have for our family captures how our cultural specificities truly do reflect universalities. It shows how we are more alike than we are different, and that is a story worthy of our attention.