By Jana Monji
Two women trying to earn money to support their elderly parental figures are the focus of two very different films: Ms. Purple and Hustlers. You’ve undoubtedly heard about Hustlers, which has had real pole dancers at special screenings and benefited from its high-profile stars: Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. Ms. Purple has been making the festival rounds and is now open in the art house theaters.
Hustlers takes place in New York City; Ms. Purple is set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Hustlers is based on real incidents, but it is Ms. Purple that seems more based on reality—the ugliness, both physical and emotional, is on the screen in plain sight.
Beware; spoilers follow.
Ms. Purple director Justin Chon (who co-wrote with Chris Dinh) responded via email, “The color purple represents the color of mourning someone’s death in the Korean culture. This film is in essence a death procession for Kasie’s father and her process of letting go.”
Kasie (Tiffany Chu) works as a hostess in a karaoke bar where she is handled and groped by drunk men. Her real interest is playing the piano, but she’s taking care of her near comatose father (James Kang) who lies in bed waiting to die at home. He’s unable to communicate. When her home care nurse resigns, Kasie asks her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to help. Carey drifts through life, jobless and wearing well-worn clothes. Left alone with their father, he pushes the bed down the streets of Koreatown when he isn’t yelling at his father.
In flashbacks, we see how Carey and Kasie’s mother deserted them and moved on to a richer man, leaving her children behind. We also see both Carey and Kasie as adults with their father when he could still walk and talk. This was never a truly happy family, but one that was always aware of absence—of motherly love, of money.
Kasie’s rich boyfriend (Ronnie Kim) buys her a beautiful custom-made hanbok but the sweetness of the gesture is tinged with the bitter truths. Kasie’s boyfriend looks at her as property, something to be used but not really loved. That makes the usage of “Ms.” ironic; the women’s liberation movement seems to have left Kasie behind and the film makes no attempt to reconcile this contradiction.
On the other hand, Hustlers attempts to claim a feminist outlook through a celebration of revenge for supposed slights. Told to a preppy journalist (Julia Stiles) by Dorothy (Constance Wu), who was once sheltered under the fur-coated wing of Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), the movie recounts how Dorothy became Destiny and learned to pole dance from Ramona and make more money in the camera-less private champagne rooms. During Wall Street boom years, high rollers gave out bills for suggestive sex shows by Ramona and Destiny, and the women who hustled the men with corporate bank accounts to spend money on drinks got a cut from the house. This was better than being a stripper who got fined for being late and had to pay a percentage to the house and bartenders.
Destiny needed the money to support her grandmother and pay the bills. You wouldn’t want granny selling all her jewelry! After the financial crisis, the big spenders wanted more bang for their buck. Destiny parts ways with Ramona, but one bad boyfriend and a child later, Destiny returns to the clubs where Russian strippers are giving blowjobs in the back for $300 and Ramona has found another scheme—drugging men and running up their corporate cards. The women justify drugging and stealing from the men because Ramona says, “The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules,” and because the men were rude. The men didn’t treat them well. The men in their dishonest dealings have effectively “stolen money from the firefighters retirement fund.” That’s not to say we ever see the women giving to the fund.
Those men who are nice are also nicely exploited because these women also apparently believe that nice guys finish last. The get-money guys include an unseen man who pays one woman’s rent and a barely seen man who helps Destiny with her laptop—likely even buying it for her. These women are equal opportunity exploiters of men—and women. After taking on two younger “partners”—Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), business goes so well that they are eventually forced to add some real bang—prostitutes found off Craigslist. Everyone gets their share and Ramona and Destiny become part of the system they protested.
Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Trying to bilk men hardly is an activity that works to bring social equality. Instead, it seems a vicious vixen cycle of misandry that is fueled by misogyny and refueled by misandry. The women could have surely gotten off their vicious hamster wheel of whorish behavior by being the embodiment of the “whore with a heart of gold” literary device and running off into the sunset with the kindly men on their “get money” lists. In the end, the women were trolling the swanky bars and restaurants for new guys who might mistakenly think they were on a date. One such man was the reason for their eventual downfall.
As you might have heard, the woman upon whom Ramona is modeled after was not consulted. Destiny, who controls the narrative, saddles Ramona with most of the blame. Yet one wonders about Destiny and her boyfriend. The depth of Ramona and Destiny’s personal problems with men is ignored to keep this movie all about the unvarnished views of Destiny.
Lopez commands each scene and has enough stylists at her disposal that she never looks less than magazine-photo ready. Director Lorene Scafaria never demands more than glamor for Lopez, although not the same can be said for Wu. At times, her bangs were distracting in a bad-wig appearance way. She gets to show range in a variety of situations but not particularly the depth of a nuanced performance. Although this is a movie about women made by women, so much seems to be for the male gaze—although tastefully done. Scafaria and her cinematographer Todd Banhazl never linger on crass crotch shots. Everyone’s home is clean and spacious.
In Ms. Purple, the house was cramped, sometimes dim and definitely lived in. Although Ms. Purple is a slighter story, with less showy shopping and no big names, director Chon gives a sense of place and suffering. His Kasie is a woman lost on the way to a funeral that hasn’t yet happened but haunts every moment of her life. There are no witty lines or declarations of grand intentions. The bit of revenge is seen rather than heard, but there’s a heartfelt struggle of love before loss. Chu’s Kasie is trapped in a stereotypical woman’s role of caregiver but without the balance of wage earner. No harsh judgment is made in this respect toward Carey because even that would not have saved this family from the funeral.
There a sense of poignant reflection in Ms. Purple about Kasie’s body as commodity, but in Hustlers that’s turned into celebration—if you got it flaunt it, and if you can use it to flimflam a man, all the better. Ms. Purple touches on feminism peripherally but Hustlers is faux feminism and neither are really about empowerment.
You can find a full list of cities where Ms. Purple is playing here.
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