'Gook' Director Justin Chon Reflects on L.A. Riots: "In '92, Everybody Was Angry"
The filmmaker and star's Sundance award-winning drama depicts the events of April 29, 1992, through the eyes of a Korean shop owner and the young black girl who befriends him.
Gook, the second directorial feature from Justin Chon, tells the story of the 1992 Los Angeles riots from a perspective seldom covered in mainstream media: that of Korean Americans, whose own simmering tensions with their African-American neighbors came to a violent head in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial verdict.
Chon, whose acting credits include the Twilight saga, 21 & Over and Seoul Searching, sets his film on April 29, 1992, and bases it in part on the experience of his father, whose shoe store in Paramount, California, was looted during the riots. In the story, Eli (played by Chon) tries to keep his shoe store afloat while dealing with Daniel (David So), his wannabe-R&B artist brother, and Kamila (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old black girl from the neighborhood who prefers hanging out with the brothers to attending class.
The dramedy (it draws as much from the era’s Boyz n the Hood as its Clerks) premiered in January in Sundance's Next section, where it won the Audience Award and drew critical praise (THR’s John DeFore said it “demonstrates a strong kinship with the indie cinema of that period, yet feels wholly alive in our present moment."). Gook will screen in Little Tokyo on Saturday night — the 25th anniversary of the riots – as the centerpiece film of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and complete the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release via Samuel Goldwyn Films in August. Chon spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his personal connection to the L.A. riots and the surprising bonding that took place on set with his father (Sang Chon), who plays a supporting role in the film: "When you think of your parents, you think of them as the people who tell you to rip your napkin in half because you need to use it twice. You don't think of them as artists."
When did you start working on this story?
It's a film I've wanted to make for the last few years, but after hearing about a few other L.A. riots projects being made, I felt that it was now or never. I'm actually really excited to see the other films — I'm a huge fan of Denis Gamze Erguven [the Turkish Mustang director making her English-language debut with upcoming Halle Berry-Daniel Craig L.A. riots romance Kings] and John Ridley [who helmed ABC documentary Let It Fall and has had a narrative script set up at various studios], and I really want to see their takes on the event, but I thought it was very important to also tell the story from a Korean-American perspective.
Do you think that perspective has been under-represented?
It's really cool to see how much Asian-Americans have progressed in terms of their voices in media. I've gotten a lot of coverage on this 25th anniversary, and a lot of people are in positions where they can write about it. On the other hand, I feel like the Korean aspect of the experience is often represented, but more in passing. I'm happy that people are interested in even telling our story, but it's from an observational standpoint rather than from the actual perspective of being a Korean during that time. They don't know what it felt like.
What did it feel like?
I was 10, about to turn 11. From an 11-year-old's perspective, you don't understand why these things happen, and especially with Asian culture where they don't explain anything to you. You're like a spectator. You know these violent things are happening, you don't know why. You don't really register how dangerous it is, either. You just think, "What does this mean for me now? Do I have to change schools? Do we have to move houses?"
Now, my dad had a totally different experience. I grew up in Irvine because my dad wanted me and my sister to go to good public schools, so he commuted an hour to an hour and a half to Paramount every single day, and he still works there. He does wholesale athletic shoes, and he's done the drive for 30 years. So I was in the suburbs watching the riots on TV, and he was watching the riots slowly approach his store. He could see the fires getting closer from his roof. His experience was waiting for the impending violence that could come his way. He wasn't thinking about anything except for the fact that he needed to protect his store: "This is our livelihood, and we have to protect it."
So when did you find out when your dad was safe? Were you guys on the phone?
We didn't know. We had no idea. He wasn't calling because that's not what he was worried about at the time. My younger sister and I were just watching television. We had no concept of whether he was safe or not safe or when he was gonna come back.
What was the extent of damage to the store?
It was bad. It looked like a tornado came through and just took the store and shook it and set it back down. But my dad was really, really lucky. He was one of the very few people who had insurance. Back then, Korean people didn't know the concept of that, so after the riots, a lot of people went back to Korea because they were broke. They didn't have money to continue on.
How much of what's in the movie is taken from personal experience?
Kamilla in the film is 11, the same age I was when the riots took place, so there's a direct correlation with that. And my dad actually plays the liquor store owner across the street. But I wasn't trying to do a direct recounting. The purpose of my film wasn't to do a history lesson; rather, it's about friendship between this kid who inherited his late father's women's shoe store and the 11-year-old African-American girl in his neighborhood. How are they friends, how do they fit into each other amidst the tension in this neighborhood? The L.A. riots provides the climate for this story to take place.
Black-Korean relations, especially during that time, were hostile. It's rare to see a friendly relationship depicted in the stories from that period.
I grew up with Boyz n the Hood, Juice, Menace II Society. That whole era of Singleton and Spike, Do the Right Thing. Another huge influence for this film was La Haine, which is also from the early '90s, about the riot in Paris when this boy was killed by the police. That was also in black and white, like my film.
I remember watching Menace II Society, this is like the quintessential portrayal of the stereotypical relationship between African-Americans and Korean store clerks. The guy's like, "Get out, get out!" and they blow his brains out and they have the tape. That was a huge plot point. I was a huge fan of that film, even though they killed a Korean store clerk, because I was such a fan of that time in cinema, and I wasn't that offended by it. I understood their complaints about Korean people in their neighborhoods. They didn't assimilate.
At the same time, when it comes to telling my story, it has to humanize Koreans and what we were going through. But this film was an opportunity for me to do justice for everyone. It's just as much an African-American film as it is a Korean film. Half the cast is black, and half the storyline is black. I had long discussions about stereotypes with one of my actors, Curtiss Cook Jr. [who plays Kamila's uncle Keith, who holds a deep resentment against Eli], about how I'm portraying African-American males. Am I repeating the angry black man stereotype?
You can't be everything for everyone, but I tried my best. At first I portray this Korean store clerk very stereotypically, behind the Plexiglas. As the story progresses, I start to humanize him little by little. In my story, everybody's mad, because that was the climate. At that time in '92, everybody was angry. The Rodney King verdict was announced and there was an uprising, because people didn't feel like they were heard. This was in every minority community at that time. And I'm hoping that I was able to give a little bit of perspective from everyone, rather than just the Korean experience.
Your dad's in the movie. Was this his first time in front of the camera?
No, my dad was a really famous child actor in South Korea. He was like the Macaulay Culkin of the '60s. He had acted, but when he met my mother, my mom's family didn’t approve of him being an actor, so he quit, and that's what prompted him to move to the U.S. and start a new life. I wrote the role for him, but I had to beg him to do it for about three months. The riots were not a good experience, and he was perplexed as to why I wanted to revisit that.
What was it like directing him?
My dad is an average Korean father, where he'll never tell you he's proud of you. And he had a lot of complaints about random things during the shoot: He didn't want to do any night shoots, he didn't want to smoke cigarettes in the film. But once he showed up on set, it was really interesting to see him approach the work as a true actor. He asked all these questions, he had thoughts about his wardrobe. They were very character-driven concerns, and I've never had that kind of conversation with my dad. When we were doing scenes, he wanted direction. It was like how any relationship with the director and actor would be. He wanted to service the story. It was cool to share the screen. The first few takes were awkward and uncomfortable, but after a few takes, it just felt like anything I've ever acted in. He relaxed really quickly, too.
So he never talked shop with you about your previous roles?
Oh my god, no. He would give me notes, and they'd be really stupid: “You need to act more natural.” I'm like, “No shit, Dad. That's like the worst acting note you can give me.” Even when I was in Twilight he would say stuff like, “Well, you were barely in the movie. What are you so proud about? Let me know when you actually have a real meaty role, where you're acting. Don't bring me to this shit.” (Laughs.)
But this was a totally different interaction. I was totally shocked because when you think of your parents, you don't think of them as artists. You think of them as the person who tells you to rip your napkin in half because you need to use it twice.
So how much did he help you with your research for this film?
I would get tiny, tiny snippets growing up. I remember doing cleanup in his store after the riots. I opened his desk drawer in his office, and there was a black handgun inside. I was like, “Oh shit, obviously he needs to protect himself." He didn’t really talk about it, so it wasn't until I started really getting into making this film that I started asking him specific questions, and it was like pulling teeth. But when he knew I was really serious about it, he told me stories like how he was a Marine in Korea, and there was a group of Korean Marines driving around L.A. in a van kind of acting like the police. They'd have CB radios, and wherever they would hear there was a conflict, they'd show up. Obviously I did a lot of other research on my own, but my dad's accounts were the most valuable, because they were personal.
Has he seen the film?
Yeah, he was at Sundance. He was like, "Don't even think about bringing me out for the Q&A. I'm gonna wear hiking clothes, so if you bring me up, you're gonna be really embarrassed." But when the film finished and they called everyone up, he was like the first one up on stage. (Laughs.) He told everybody else he liked it, but he didn't tell me. He hasn't told me he's proud of me or anything. At the after party, he told me to stop drinking because he said I needed to be professional. But I think after the fact, he understands why the film was important.
What about when you won the Audience Award? What was your dad's reaction to that?
My dad doesn't know what that is. He doesn't care. I think he was just happy that it was playing somewhere and people liked it. I honestly didn't expect to win. It's awesome because it wasn't the jurors deciding, it was the audience. So what was really encouraging was being able to see that the audience has an appetite for this. There were other films in my division with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara [David Lowery’s A Ghost Story] and Michael Cera [Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person], yet they voted for our film, which was just a bunch of no-name black and Asian kids. That was incredible that that's even possible now.
We talked almost exactly a year ago about challenges facing Asian-American actors. What have you learned about opportunities for Asian-American filmmakers?
What I'm starting to realize after having made a film and selling it is, there is room. There is an appetite, and people just want compelling, great stories. That's the magic of cinema: You can watch someone that's not your skin color or your ethnicity, and you can relate to them. After Sundance I met with everybody under the sun in terms of production companies. Everyone's like, “What's next?” I tell them a few stories, and they're excited. It's not like, "Oh, we don't do that." Especially in the last year, we just saw Ghost in the Shell and what happened to that. Obviously there are the tentpoles, but I think execs are getting privy to alternate programming. I mean, look at Get Out, holy shit! That movie was so incredible, and Jordan Peele just created a new genre, the social thriller. I think people are ready for it.
I have to ask you about the title, which is generally used as an ethnic slur against Asians. What was the decision behind that?
In the film, I explain how that word actually means "country" in Korean. Hangook is Korea, Chingook is China, and Migook, which breaks down to "beautiful country," is America. The title wasn't meant to be for shock factor. That's really what encapsulates that time: the racism, the implosion, but also the irony of the whole situation. Had I not explained it in the film, it'd be a really terrible choice. But it's a huge turning point in the story. When people say it, I want people to feel uncomfortable. And if they don't feel uncomfortable, then at least if you watch the film, you have an explanation of what it's about. While I was filming, the younger millennial people didn't know what the hell it was. They were all pronouncing it wrong, which maybe is a good thing, that it's not even in their vernacular.
Moving forward, it’s the 25th anniversary of the riots, and this is an opportunity for us to say, “Let's never go back there." But the irony is, we haven't progressed. There's still insane police brutality. Kamilla in the film is the bridge between the Korean and African-American communities, but on a bigger scale it's a metaphor about the country. We're so divided, and what I wanted to say was, "Look what happens when there's no conversation. Look what happens when no one wants to step inside someone else's shoes."