Life at the bottom isn’t easy. Near the bottom ain’t any easier, and that’s where Kasie (Tiffany Chu) resides. Her mother left when she was a child, her father (James Kang) is a bed-ridden invalid in his final days, and her brother (Teddy Lee) won’t come home because of a spat he and the old man had years ago.
And though Kasie spends her days tending to her father, her nights are much worse. She’s a doumi, a call girl of sorts working Los Angeles’ K-town karaoke bars. Sometimes that means pouring the drinks, sometimes that means more. At one point, Kasie is taken as a date to a wedding, only to be humiliated. There aren’t a lot of parameters to her position, which makes things dicey. When everything is on the table, anything can happen.
To shield herself, Kasie closes herself off emotional, floating through most scenes of Ms. Purple wearing an expressionless face as a mask. A mask director Justin Chon wears as well. He observes Kasie’s life with a fly-on-the-wall detachment, observation without interjection, capturing without commenting.
It doesn’t quite work. Though Chon seems to be going for something authentic, the use of languid camera moves, slow motion, moody lighting, and a droning score adds little and frustrates much. Chon — who co-wrote the script with Chris Dinh — uses a series of flashbacks to tease out the moment where Kasie, along with her father and brother, began their long, arduous life of rejection. But Chon can’t make the ideas connect, no matter where the flashbacks are inserted.
Instead, Chon asks the audience to make amorphous connections while watching Kasie wanders around Los Angeles’ streets, transit lines, and viaducts looking pensive and feeling dejected. She is standing in for the unseen, the downtrodden, and the rejected souls suffering in the city. Well, maybe. It’s hard to tell when the focus keeps shifting.
Directed by Justin Chon
Written by Justin Chon, Chris Dinh
Produced by Alex Chi, Justin Chon, Alan Pao, James J. Yi
Starring: Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, James Kang
Oscilloscope, Not rated, Running time 87 minutes, Opens September 20, 2019