The great Chinese auteur Wong Kar-wai has a reputation as a sensualist. He hints at carnal impulses more than he visualizes them; his movies run cool on the surface and smolder beneath as they orbit his characters’ unrequited desires and heartaches. Along with leaving audiences hot and bothered, he is also known for his use of step printing, a stuttered version of slow-motion that produces sequences and imagery that appear animated and arrested at the same time, as if the camera itself has thrown back one too many.
It’s an effect often copied and rarely replicated with Wong’s success, but Justin Chon’s new film, Ms. Purple, makes such good use of step printing that at a glance, his work might be mistaken as Wong’s. The difference between Ms. Purple and Wong’s most beloved works—In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together—lies in the divide between sensuality and sorrow. Chon’s movie is abidingly bereft: His protagonists, siblings Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and Carey (Teddy Lee), both lack selfhood, life direction, familial closure, even a sense of societal security. They’re searching for such things, of course, or at least considering the search. Frankly, they’re too caught up in toil and struggle to do much anything else.
Kasie works as a doumi, a karaoke hostess, spending her evenings feigning an interest in entitled, over-wealthy men who paw at her and other young women and toss cash at them in expectation of treatment befitting a god. Carey doesn’t really work at all, and when he’s not loafing in his trailer, he’s loafing in an online café, logging game time despite lacking the cash to pay for it. Where Carey lives alone, Kasie lives with their father (James Kang), prone and comatose in bed, dependent on his daughter’s care to survive. Several times during Ms. Purple, outsiders and Carey alike try to persuade her to put dad in hospice, but she cannot, will not, bring herself to do it. She’s loyal to him to her own detriment.
Thus she calls on Carey for help after years of radio silence between them, and Carey, to the surprise of all, agrees almost immediately. Chon establishes upfront that dad clearly loved Kasie more than Carey, and that this imbalance bred resentment in the boy that he has shouldered from youth to adulthood; punctuating that animus in their first moment alone, Carey shakes his helpless sire and screams words at him that Chon doesn’t let his audience hear. Maybe putting your father’s care in the hands of your jealous brother is a party foul, but Kasie has no better choices. Ms. Purple paints Los Angeles with a neon glare by night and a brilliant haze by day. The city feels dreamlike throughout, and that quality lends the movie a teetering instability, as if any moment could be the one where either Kasie or Carey finally unravel.
Chon pulls at their threads like a cat stubbornly batting at a curtain cord. It’s inevitable that brother and sister must fall apart in their own unique ways; there’s only so much Kasie can take of the objectification and dominance of her asshole boyfriend (Ronnie Kim), only so much longer Carey can suppress the years-long buildup of anguish over his dad’s neglect and favoritism. For Kasie, something better is out there, “something” being a healthier relationship with a much kinder man, Octavio (Octavio Pisano). For Carey, something is out there, period. He’s spent most of his life maturing into a man doing nothing, holding on to nothing, coming up with nothing to show for his nothingness. Repairing his bond with Kasie would be an astronomic leap forward for him.
But there’s much to confront before that can happen. Compared to Chon’s incendiary prior effort, 2017’s Gook, Ms. Purple is quiet, verging on contemplative. The film finds thistles and thorns with which to prick its leads and delay desperately needed reflection, but when you’re only barely making it through the day every day, moments of reflection don’t come easily. In fact, they might only come through violence and emotional outbursts, and Chon filters both through use of naturalist and staggered filmmaking techniques alike. His work is haunting and flirts with delirium, but at all times feels urgently alive.
Director: Justin Chon
Writer: Justin Chon, Chris Dinh
Starring: Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pisano, Ronnie Kim, James Kang
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.