Kasie (Tiffany Chu) spends her life taking care of men. She works as a “hostess” at a karaoke bar in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, pouring drinks and being friendly (but not too friendly) in private rooms with her male customers.
When she gets home, she takes care of her dying father (James Kang), unable to afford a live-in nurse and unwilling to take him to a hospice. The men in her life and the responsibilities they represent are oppressive, literally invading her space in the frame in “Ms. Purple.” There’s no room left for her. In one visual rhyme, director Justin Chon cuts between drunken men hanging on Kasie’s body at work, and her bathing her comatose father at home.
Chon’s film, which he co-wrote with Chris Dinh, is a somber but glowing character study of a young woman who has spent so much of her life putting on faces — good daughter, flirty hostess — for other men that she has forgotten what her own face looks like. If she ever knew.
Dinh will be in Madison to present the film at 7 p.m. Saturday at UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, as part of the Asian-American Media Spotlight series. The screening is free.
Chu’s subtle performance shows us the desperation Kasie lives with, without ever letting those masks drop. We see her fear as a loutish customer crosses the line with her in a private room, and the sadness as she tends to her father.
Respite seems to come when her irresponsible younger brother Carey (Teddy Lee) comes home and offers to take care of their father. True to form, Kasie slips into caregiver mode with him, too, trying to tuck him into bed and playfully spoonfeeding him at the kitchen table.
In flashbacks, we learn that their mother abandoned the family, leaving their father to raise them. Their father doted on Kasie but belittled and abused the rebellious Carey, who ran away when he was a teenager. Chu and Lee effectively show how Kasie and Carey fall back into an easy sibling camaraderie, the shared trauma that has become their family inheritance.
The story is slight in “Ms. Purple,” with the focus on characters, and particularly Kasie’s quiet striving to take control of a life that has spun out of her control. Aside from Carey, the one ray of hope in her life is a genial parking lot valet, Octavio (Octavio Pizano), who clearly likes her but treats her respectfully. Unlike the groping men in the club, he stands back, letting her have the frame to herself for once.