Writer/director/star Justin Chon’s Gook, a raw, charming and all-around impactful drama about racial tensions between LA’s Korean and African American communities during the 1992 Rodney King riots—when this discord between the two came to a boiling point as the city burned down—explores the conflict with a grounded, even-handed eye. Mainstream audiences might recognize Chon as a supporting actor in those wildly successful sparkling vampire films, but lately he’s emerged as a unique voice for low-budget, character-driven dramedies.
His first feature, Man Up, about a man-child who needed guidance on his way to adulthood, was an amusing, low-key look at arrested development. Now with Gook, Chon combines his innate talent for building immediately likable and relatable characters with natural chemistry amongst his cast to tell a more socially substantive story. We might expect a DIY movie like this to a employ a grainy black-and-white look, shaky handheld camera, jump cuts and improvisational acting in order to capture a docudrama aesthetic, to make the characters and the situations they find themselves in feel as real as possible. Chon uses all of these tricks, managing to pull off pretty much every single one. It’s a major step up for the filmmaker in both narrative and technical terms.
Most of Gook takes place in a shoe store owned and run by the headstrong Eli (Chon, in an impressive performance) and Daniel (David So), an aspiring singer who’s playful and funny without slipping into the “forced comedy relief” role. Kamilla (Simone Baker), the happy-go-lucky daughter of one of the shoe store’s ex-employees, regularly skips school in order to help out at the store. Her actual immediate relatives barely recognize her presence, so she looks up to Eli and Daniel as an alternative family.
The rapport between these three actors is so delightful and captivating that the whole film could have easily sustained itself on them hanging out in the store and shoot the shit. Even when they engage in an adorable impromptu dance number set to Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” a move usually used as an obvious and sometimes cynical shortcut to the audience’s love, comes across as an everyday occurrence for these characters. Chon must be aware of his lightning-in-a-bottle energy with his cast, as most of Gook’s runtime is spent witnessing slice-of-life moments in the shoe store—until the conflict that builds as the Rodney King verdict is announced and the riots begin inevitably comes to Eli and Daniel’s doorstep.
Gook is similar in structure and tone to Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, in that both films use their first two acts to give the audience a false sense of comfort that they’re in for a character-driven ensemble comedy, only to let racial tension slowly boil beneath the surface before exploding in tragedy at the end of the film. Kamilla’s older brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) still holds a grudge regarding Eli and Daniel’s response to a horrible past event that inadvertently binds their families together: Keith and Kamilla’s mother used to work at the shoe store, and was killed during a robbery attempt. Keith’s grievance, combined with his prejudice towards Koreans, propels him to go after Eli and Daniel, using the chaos spurned by the riots as an excuse to act on his basest urges.
This tension of course culminates in a tragic climax. What happens at the end of Do the Right Thing felt natural, fitting directly into that film’s themes. The ending of Gook, on the other hand, feels a bit more forced, a contrived, last-second attempt to give this already captivating, reality-tethered drama more gravitas than it needed, without providing much connective tissue between it and Chon’s deft handling of the racial divide the riots further spurned.
Director: Justin Chon
Writer: Justin Chon
Starring: Simone Baker, Justin Chon, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So
Release Date: August 18, 2017