This past weekend I saw the movie, “GOOK,” which was written and directed by Justin Chon. He also starred as one of the main characters, Eli. I also had the pleasure of seeing a Q&A with the film’s Simone Baker, Omono Okojie and moderated by Wong Fu Productions’ Phil Wang. Chon, who is a USC alum, has been on my radar for the past few years not because of his Hollywood career, but rather his connection to the Asian YouTube community.That connection was strengthened by David So, who also starred in the film as Eli's brother Daniel. I already heard a lot of hype about “GOOK” online because there was a huge kickstarter campaign to make it happen. And amazingly, it won the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The quick gist of the film is that Eli and Daniel are two Korean Americans trying to keep their late father’s shoe store afloat in 1992 Los Angeles. They have a close friendship with Kamilla, a scrappy 11-year-old black girl from the neighborhood who ditches school to help out at their store. And just like Los Angeles on the day of the Rodney King verdict, tensions between family and neighbors reach a breaking point.
There are plenty of reviews that both loved and criticized this film, and those people can probably give a better professional critique. But in my honest opinion the film didn’t strike me as the best I’ve ever seen from a technical standpoint. There were a few moments when it seemed...off. In one scene, for instance, Chon’s character and a Korean shop owner exchanged a few “FUCK YOU’s” just a bit too long. And there was an odd sequence where Kamilla’s brother and his friends seemed to be looking at women’s shoes in the store, except it came before they rolled up to the store for the first time. I will say, however, that shooting the film in black and white was a tad brilliant in that it probably saved money and allowed for the sets to look more like it was 1992.
The LA Riots didn’t feature in the film so much as it influenced it, which I thought was interesting. Yes, the Rodney King verdict drove much of the plot, and the film didn’t shy away from racial tensions. “Gook” was tagged on Eli’s car, Daniel nearly died getting beat up in South L.A., Eli was held at gunpoint by Latino looters, and Kamilla rattled off the resentment that blacks and African Americans in the neighborhood had towards Eli and Daniel.
But as Okojie, who played Kamilla’s sister, pointed out in the Q&A, this film was more about the people than anything else. Kamilla’s brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), angrily ranted that Eli and Daniel weren’t suffering the way that he and his siblings were suffering. Daniel was desperate to pursue his R&B dreams, and Eli was desperate to hold on to their father’s store. And Kamilla, who lost her mother, seemed to be on the search for the meaning of family throughout the film. Chon also seemed to make a point that these characters were complicated by understanding what motivated characters: Keith’s grief over the loss of his mother, his friends’ anger at the Rodney King verdict, Kamilla’s urge to ditch school. These things lead into actions that, while unjustifiable and frowned upon, can still be understood by the audience.
For that alone I loved watching this film, and the fact that it was shot and got to Sundance in a year boggles my mind. It left me thinking that I’m living in pretty a pretty interesting time for Asian Americans. Just today, Ed Skrein backed out of playing Major Ben Daimio for the “Hellboy” reboot because he wanted to honor people’s desire to have the character portrayed accurately.
“Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family. It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality.”
And with people like Chon creating things that heavily feature pocs and telling stories that others can resonate with, I’m actually feeling hopeful for representation in entertainment.
“We’re at a point in technology and culture where we can do stuff on our own,” Wang said at the Q&A, and having made his own film backed by fans, he can say that with certainty.
“GOOK” may not have been the most perfect film in the world, but it still needs to be seen. It would have been so easy to make this film purely about race relations, but Chon made it more than that. He made it into a story about people who are just trying to get by, and it was good to see a portrayal of Los Angeles during a time that defined the city. I definitely recommend seeing it, if only for the awesome shoe store dancing.
Oh, and just in case you're into trailers: