Directed by: Justin Chon
Premise: Two Korean-American brothers (Justin Chon and David So) manage a struggling shoe store in 1992 Los Angeles while looking after an African American girl (Simone Baker). Their livelihood is put in peril by the violence of the LA riots.
What Works: Gook is primarily the story of a pair of brothers and their struggle to survive. The immigrant narrative is a distinctly American story but Gook is unique because it is about the second generation immigrant experience. The brothers played by Justin Chon and David So still have links to their cultural background but they are products of the American melting pot as evidenced by their dress and manner of speaking. A lot of American immigrant stories are tied up with capitalism; in many of these stories people come from other countries and forge their own path by founding a business. The brothers of Gook have inherited a store from their deceased father and struggle to keep it open amidst crime and poverty. That’s all given an added dimension in this story because it takes place against the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the racial unrest in that city and in American culture at the time. Within that framework, Gook provides a cast of characters who feel authentic and distinct. Each brother has a slightly different outlook. Eli, played by Justin Chon, is invested in keeping the store afloat while Daniel, played by David So, has dreams of a music career. Their store is the hangout for Kamilla, played by Simone Baker, a preteen girl who is the link between the Asian American brothers and her African American family. The family conflict and the racial tensions lean on one another to create a complex matrix of characters and relationships that is a sophisticated portrait of race in American life. Gook impressively manages a range of tones. Parts of this movie are quite dramatic and there is a lot of rage locked up in racial tension and economic frustration. But Gook also includes moments of levity and tenderness and it elegantly transitions between those tones sometimes within the same scene. That is reflected in the film’s excellent cinematography. Gook is shot in black and white in a way that gives it a gritty reality but the look of the picture mixes naturalism with stylized moments that are quite beautiful.
What Doesn’t: Gook takes place amid the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The verdict of the police brutality case and the civil unrest that followed provides a pretense for the violence and chaos of the climax but viewers who aren’t familiar with this historical incident probably won’t learn much more about it from this film. Ultimately, the LA riots are window dressing for the conflict between African American and Asian American families. That’s fine; this isn’t a documentary and it isn’t bound to explain the 1992 riots to us. However, the film might play better for an older audience who is familiar with the historical context. Gook might also have benefitted from providing a little more nuance among the African American characters especially as the rioting and looting begins.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: Gook didn’t get much attention in its original release but this film deserves a wider appreciation. It’s an engaging drama and a complex portrait of race in America with likable characters. It is also a promising sophomore feature from director, writer, and actor Justin Chon.
Episode: #696 (April 29, 2018)