Movie Review: The director of “Gook,” goes back to Koreatown for “Ms. Purple”

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“Ms. Purple” isn’t a movie you review. It’s a character study you put on the psychoanalyst’s couch.

Justin Chon’s tender, intimate followup to his bracing, gritty and sometimes funny “Gook” shows us the shattered remains of a Koreatown family and makes us ponder what broke them.

Kasie (Tiffany Chu of TV’s “Artificial”) is a pretty 20something whose almost expressionless face might crack if she ever managed a genuine smile. She is a karaoke hostess, a “doumi,” piling into a van every night, just another pretty-enough face in a little black dress. At the bars where they work, they are lined up — “Turn around!” — and selected by groups of men out for a night of drinking, singing and pawing.

Judged (harshly), used, misused and sometimes cheated, it is a particularly degrading line of work. It’s prostitution by almost any definition of the word. And every now and then, that last sexual line is crossed.

What put her here? The desperation becomes clearer when she gets home. Her comatose father (James Kang) is in home hospice care, waiting to die. Flashbacks tell a story of fatherly love, an obligation passed down. When their mercenary mother fled, he dutifully raised Kasie and her brother, soldiered on.

The crisis that begins “Ms. Purple” is one any American can relate to — healthcare. The soul-crushing work of bathing, monitoring and changing IVs on her father has also broken his nurse, Juanita (Alma Martinez). “I can’t do this any more. When’s he going to die? He needs to be in a hospice!”

Kasie loses her poker face in this argument. She’s desperate enough to beg nurses, in the parking lot, going into the nearby hospice to take on the job she can’t handle on her own. And there are no takers, only “Do yourself a favor, put your dad in hospice” advice.

This is as sad a scene as you’ll see in a movie this year.

Kasie’s last hope is the brother she’s still close to, but who won’t return her calls. Carey (Teddy Lee) has the same emotionally-drained visage. He has no visible means of support, only an addiction. He can’t stay away from the PC Bang a den of multiplayer gaming sin.

Kasie needs to hear from him, needs his help or at least support. Carey surprises her by finally returning a call, and then shocks her, and maybe himself, by saying he will watch their father, take care of him while Kasie works the bars and, crossing one more line, takes up with a rich, callous and yet generous client (Ronnie Kim).

Kasie has a sugar daddy, someone to be arm candy for when he attends functions — weddings, etc. But it’s a loveless, cruel arrangement.

The one break in her life of misery might be Octavio (Octavio Pizano), the valet at one of the bars where she works. He’s not much on first glance — broke, bottom-tier job, over-eager. But he is everything important that her life lacks — kindness, a young man happily ensconced in an upbeat, loving family.

Carey, who stormed out of their house as a teen, is atoning for his broken relationship with Dad. But his “care” includes sneaking him out, in his hospital bed, to rooftop sunbathing sessions, even into Carey’s favorite PC Bang.

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That impulse is underscored with The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles,” and it is a jarring moment in a movie that is otherwise forlorn, set to weepy strings or plaintive Southwestern guitar music. It’s seriously off key.

But that one scene highlights how drained of energy Chon’s film is. The arguments (often in Korean with English subtitles) have heat. The sister-brother dynamic, re-established when Carey moves back in, has a teasing charm. They never grew out of razzing and calling each other “Dude.” But most of what we’re shown by the characters is the exhaustion that comes after brooding, endlessly, on an overwhelming problem that is devouring every life it is allowed to touch.

The singular vitality of Chon’s work is as a tour guide to this undiscovered culture admidst the roiling, multi-cultural life of L.A. He’s almost a throwback to regional filmmaking, specializing in a small corner of America, directors like Victor Nunez (“Ulee’s Gold”) and Leslie Harris (“Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.”).

That Koreatown Travelogue is still in evidence in “Ms. Purple.” And the performances work, despite their requisite flatness. It’s just that the few flashes of heightened drama and the gentleness of the Kasie/Octavio scenes aren’t enough to lift the weight these characters and this story carries.

It’s almost relentlessly downbeat.n “Ms. Purple” can’t help but leave you a little blue.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations, nudity, smoking.

Cast: Tiffany Chu, Jake Choi, Teddy Lee, James Kang, Octavio Pizano

Credits: Directed by Justin Chon, script by Justin Chon, Chris Dinh. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 1:27

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