2017, NR, 94 min. Directed by Justin Chon. Starring Simone Baker, Justin Chon, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So, Sang Chon, Sharyn Grose.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 29, 2017
The provocatively titled indie film Gook is both incendiary and lyrical. These traits are foretold in this black-and-white film’s opening shot: a girl dancing in free-form, flailing motions in front of a burning structure. The image is a bit macabre, but haunting and compelling. Writer/director Justin Chon also stars in this authorial work about American racism, which won the Best of Next! Audience Award at Sundance 2017.
Set in Paramount, Calif., Gook’s action takes place over the course of a single day: April 29, 1992, the first day of the Los Angeles riots that occurred in the wake of the exoneration of the white police officer alleged to have beaten Rodney King. The low-budget film’s black-and-white cinematography (by Ante Cheng) helps it maintain the illusion of being set in an earlier time period, which is now 25 years in the past. Although characters’ pagers light up with messages saying things like, “Free stuff on South Central,” Gook takes place in a nook beyond the edges of downtown L.A., where smoke plumes can be seen in the distance but a more immediate threat is the inbred racism in this mixed community of blacks and Latinos that shares turf with the area’s predominantly Korean shopkeepers.
Justin Chon plays Eli who, with his brother Daniel (So), are the proprietors of the tiny shoe store left to them by their Korean immigrant father. Pre-teen Kamilla (Baker, the dancing girl in the film’s opening image) is a hooky-playing black child who hangs out in their shop for reasons that only gradually become clear. Kamilla lives with her mother (Grose) and brother Keith (Cook), who, with his gang of hood rats, commit petty larcenies and deliver regular beatdowns to the area’s Korean occupants. Across the way from the brothers’ shoe store is a liquor and convenience store, owned and operated by surly Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), an old-timer who harbors a deep distrust of all customers, although during a moment of crisis opens up to this next generation of Korean merchants.
With clear nods to Clerks and Do the Right Thing, Chon’s film is imbued with a strong sense of the slack experienced by bored storekeepers as well as the ways in which a neighborhood’s racial tensions can escalate in a mere heartbeat. The film’s storyline has some rough edges that might benefit from more detail, but Chon shows a definite talent for drawing out strong performances from his actors, as well as marshaling expressive imagery that’s enhanced by Roger Suen’s lyrical music score. The ugliness of the film’s pejorative title is belied by Gook’s focused sensitivity.