Just by its title alone, director Justin Chon’s Gook demonstrates a hard commitment to being unflinchingly passionate and frank. For the sake of clarity, a “gook” is a derogatory term used primarily in the US to refer to people of East Asian descent. The movie is set during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and Chon stars as Eli who, alongside his brother Daniel (both Korean-Americans), runs the family’s shoe store in an impoverished, mostly African-American neighbourhood. The brothers befriend Kamila, a young African-American child and take on a brotherly role towards her as they collectively observe the rising social tensions in their city.
Gifting the film with a loaded term clearly outlines Chon’s philosophy: namely, to strip away any niceties regarding this awful time in US history and to portray this era from a unique perspective. Sure, movies about the LA riots have been made before, but Gook is unique in that it primarily focuses on the experiences of the Korean-American youth during that time and their placement as a minority versus another minority under the shadow of wider institutional racism.
In this regard, Gook is spectacular. The picture brilliantly lingers towards an unsettling tension that seems to permeate each scene. As Asian-Americans, Eli and Daniel face frequent emasculation from Latino and African-Americans, but Chon isn’t afraid to depict grievances from the other side of the fence, with Black characters complaining about racism from Korean-Americans and the unresolved economic disparity between the groups. Mercifully, it’s handled well, and the director forgoes trying to force a contrived middle ground, steering the film away from being too hammy or clumsy a story about ethnic conflict (Crash, anyone?).
This tension extends further as Eli and Daniel battle against traditional expectations from older members of the Korean community, particularly centring around the generational divide and their friendship and acceptance of Black people.
Gook isn’t all doom though. Chon shines as he depicts a believable warmth between Kamila and the brothers, never veering into being saccharine or patronising. There are a few moments where the pacing is hampered by melodrama, but the wonderful chemistry between the cast and stellar acting taper this. Simone Baker as Kamila and Curtiss Cook Jr, as her brother Keith, deliver standout performances.
Positioning itself away from being too preachy, this monochromatic filmed depiction of racial tension (clearly owing a lot to a Spike Lee flick) revels in solid characterisation, fantastic acting and benefits from a unique perspective on an American tragedy.
Gook is released nationwide on 16th March 2018.
Watch the trailer for Gook here: