As decent Americans look on aghast after another incident of racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, films like “Gook” remain incredibly timely. Starring, written, and directed by Justin Chon, this drama relives the tense atmosphere of South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the infamous Rodney King verdict. Crafted carefully around those real life events, “Gook” delivers a rare, engaging Korean-American take on race relations in the early 90s.
Explicitly referencing the derogatory term for Asian-Americans, “Gook” centers around a pair of Korean-American brothers and their shoe store. Inherited from their father, the brothers Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) struggle to keep the business alive in honor of his memory. Helping them is an 11-year old African-American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker). Feeling at home with the friendly duo, she often ditches school to be in their company. But other members of the black community (including her disapproving brother) feel differently, viewing the brothers as unwanted outsiders. And as the tensions mount surrounding the news of the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial, the shoe store comes under threat.
From its first frame, “Gook” grabs your attention with its confident visual language. Shot in crisp black and white, the film opens with an expressionistic sequence involving our young protagonist, Kamilla, dancing in front of a burning of building. That burning motif echoes throughout the remainder of the film in more urgent, realist ways. In particular, one memorable scene shows Kamilla and Eli looking out at the distance as smoke rises from the LA riots.
As the narrative progresses, Chon increasingly reflects the sentiments behind those riots in our protagonists’ immediate circumstances. Although “Gook” is set away from the actual battleground, the simmering tension is inescapable. Intermittently, the protagonists’ lives are disrupted by confrontations between Latin Americans, Korean-Americans and African-Americans. Meanwhile, television sets are shown reporting the latest updates on the Rodney King verdict.
And yet, life goes on amid the madness. Taking a laid-back storytelling approach that at times feels listless, “Gook” counters the usual violent imagery of the era by also depicting the positivity of the central characters. Even as the script sympathizes with the frustrations and anger held by the different racial groups, it also finds opportune moments for levity. Notably, an impromptu dance scene highlights the close bond between Camilla and the brothers.
Such interactions provide the film’s beating heart, largely thanks to the performances of Justin Chon and the tenacious Simone Baker. As Daniel, David So also makes a compelling contribution. Notably, his character’s aspirations as an R&B singer serve to emphasize the melting pot of cultures that epitomizes the city.
Inevitably the tensions do reach a boiling point, in ways that bring back memories of “Do the Right Thing.” And like that 1988 Spike Lee classic, “Gook” signals the emergence of a promising talent in the world of indie cinema. Effortlessly blending sleek arthouse sensibilities and the raw emotionalism of low-budget social dramas, Justin Chon proves he can deliver cinematic art that impresses on both an aesthetic and thematic level.
“Gook” opens in select theaters August 18.