Set on the first day of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and as charged with racial tensions as that moment (not to mention its title) suggests, Justin Chon’s Gook demonstrates a strong kinship with the indie cinema of that period, yet feels wholly alive in our present moment. Clearly influenced by Spike Lee and others of his generation, Justin Chon directs himself in a black-and-white picture where hang-out comedy and nihilistic violence sit side by side. Fest and art house auds should respond warmly, but a distrib who can get the word out to mainstream Asian-American moviegoers could carry the very accessible film further than that.
Chon plays Eli, who with his brother Daniel (David So) runs the tiny women’s shoe store his father started years back in Paramount, Calif. The store’s a dump, and looks like it should see more tumbleweeds than customers, but a surprising number of women patronize the store — all or most of them black, reflecting the black and Latino population of this neighborhood, which is served by Korean business owners like Eli and, at the liquor store across the street, Mr. Kim. (Kim is played by Chon’s father Sang Chon, who actually had a store that was looted during the riots.)
An 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) likes to cut school and hang around the store, doing odd jobs and joking with the brothers, sharing an especially strong bond with Eli. Unlikely pairings like this aren’t so uncommon at mom-and-pop shops, but for viewers who find it hard to swallow, the movie will eventually explain how these two know each other.
Well before that, though, Gook hints at a deep grudge Kamilla’s brother Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.) has against the brothers — a resentment more personal than the ordinary racism we witness throughout, as both Eli and Daniel are targets of random harassment and violence.
Television coverage of the Rodney King beating trial is present from the start, and when the verdict is announced, word quickly spreads of “some shit going down in South Central.” Keith gets a pager message: “Free stuff South Central,” and though everyone (except Mr. Kim) seems to expect the mayhem to stay in that neighborhood, the viewer senses (much like in Do the Right Thing, which will be explicitly referenced later) that something’s simmering here as well.
Until his last act, though, Chon is anything but angsty. Ante Cheng’s monochrome photography is far more attractive than the cruddy image of Kevin Smith’s black-and-white Clerks, but a similar squabbling-shopkeepers vibe exists here, and even several expletive-rich angry arguments produce more laughs than anxiety. (The protagonists cross paths in one scene with a pair of bicyclists who are surely meant to recall Jay and Silent Bob.)
If it seems meandering at moments, Gook proves to have a sure sense of its trajectory, using little tiffs to point toward more meaningful interactions late in the film, especially between the brothers and their Korean elder across the street. Chon’s offscreen comments suggest the pic began with some familiar diversity- and tolerance-related goals. But Gook rises above message-movie mediocrity, enjoying its characters too much to use them as political mouthpieces.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production companies: Datari Turner Productions, Birthday Soup Films, Fishbowl Studios, Foxtrout Studios, Tunnel Post
Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz
Director-screenwriter: Justin Chon
Producers: Alex Chi, James Yi
Executive producers: Justin Cho,n Jin Young Lee, Pierre Delachaux, Eugene Lee, Sam Chi, Maurice Chen, David Joe Kim, Gigi Tsui Kim, Nathan Kwong, Raymond Kou, Kirstin Bianchi, Ian Choe, Blaine Vess, Jason Kim, James Sereno, Jason Morales, Edward Oh, Brian Shin, Dennis Kwon, Alan Pao, Naja Pham Lockwood
Director of photography: Ante Cheng
Production designers: Sharon Roggio, Jena Serbu
Costume designer: Eunice Jera Lee
Editor: Rooth Tang, Reynolds Barney
Composer: Roger Suen
Sales: Linzee Troubh, Cinetic Media
Not rated, 94 minutes