Director: Justin Chon
Cast: Simone Baker, Justin Chon, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr.
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The provocatively-titled Gook is a melting pot of fiery, young cinema. Cross Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Kevin Smith’s Clerks and you get some sense of how writer-director and star Justin Chon pitches his LA Riots-adjacent drama.
In April 1992, Korean-America brothers Eli (Chon) and Daniel (So) are struggling to keep the lights on in their late father’s shoe shop. One silver lining is Kamilla (Baker), an African-American girl who’s similarly missing her mother and skips school to help out at the store, sweeping the floors and working the stock room. When the infamous verdict comes in regarding the police assault of Rodney King, LA’s minority communities are united in outrage. Cruelly, however, the violent tension threatens to create an even greater racial divide.
With their parents out of the picture, these young people have to lead from the front. Chon, who got his big break in the Twilight series, is an unbelievably fresh-faced 36 in reality, but plays a character barely clear of his teens here. He captures this forced maturity and leads his little-known cast well. Eli shares a particularly moving bond with Kamilla; Baker’s raw delivery wobbles at times, but she’s a compelling screen presence who leaves an indelible mark on the hazy black-and-white frame.
The evocative cinematography is more than attractive period shorthand. The monochrome filter highlights the cruel irony of violence between racial minorities. Like Moonlight, there’s nary a white face in sight, and Chon and cinematographer Ante Cheng use the colour, or lack thereof, to connect racial groups and expose their schisms as oppressive, destructive fallacies. Another similarity with Barry Jenkins’ modern masterpiece is Chon’s use of humanistic long takes that find floating beauty in these troubled streets.
Before the violence erupts, Chon uses humour to establish these characters and their cracked world. Comedian and YouTube personality So is the focus of many of the film’s laughs. His eager bro-iness doesn’t always match the tone of the film, but there’s a welcome rapport between the trio. The early 90s convenience store setting, young leads, black and white cinematography and foul-mouthed dialogue are all nods to Clerks. The connection is indisputable, and Chon wears the iconic touchstone on his sleeve. (One moment oversteps the mark, however, as a pair of blatant Jay and Silent Bob surrogates show up with advice and exposition.)
Later scenes of racial violence and shattered shop windows owe a debt to Brooklyn auteur Spike Lee, as does the film’s musicality. Energetic dance sequences capture a transcendent youth. Gook’s opening image is Kamilla getting down in front of a building engulfed in roaring flames. Even drained of colour, this captures a Vietnam War iconography of ravenous flamethrowers and caustic napalm. That conflict and the preceding Korean War are the origins of the titular racial slur and Gook presents uncomfortable parallels on home soil. American hopes and dreams are crushed, but the important thing is knowing when to let broken fantasies go. This is wartime and these kids are going to dance as the house burns down.
Gook is a bold film and one that’s unafraid to be aggressively emotionally charged. Chon is a young filmmaker heavily indebted to other directors, but he’s drawing from some excellent films and, in his confident delivery, he makes this striking drama feel his own.