By Mandy Day
For those of us whose love of film often intertwines with our involvement in social justice issues, we often need reminders about the history that played a large part in the evolution of civil rights movements. While millions of Millennials were small children when the Los Angeles riots engulfed the country’s second largest city, the aftermath significantly impacted how people of color react to issues like police brutality and economic injustice. Inspired by his childhood in L.A. and the riots that destroyed his father’s shoe store, Justin Chon’s Gook is set among the unfolding chaos in Los Angeles despite never directly addressing the racial tensions and violence that significantly impacted the relationships between the film’s Black and Asian characters.
Closing out the 2017 San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase, Gook was screened for an overflow crowd in the city’s Mission Valley neighborhood. Making the trip from Los Angeles were producers James Yi and Alex Chi who discussed the film’s intricacies with an enthusiastic crowd. Yi and Chi spent a few minutes with AsAmNews after the showing to talk more about how Chon’s Korean heritage affected the story and how several of the plot’s characteristics are common in Korean cinematic arts. Yi explained to the audience that these were reflective of how Koreans cope with the hardships life brings. Many of these commonalities in style between Gook and Korean film elicited a visceral response from the audience. Yi explains how the audience reaction to the film’s first screening at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year gave the filmmakers an added confidence about the story they had told.
For Chon and Yi, this story was an homage to their childhoods growing up in predominantly African American communities in California. “Even though it’s a film marketed as a film about the L.A. riots, I don’t believe it’s a film about the L.A. riots… The L.A. riots gave us a time and place and the dynamics to tell this story,” Yi told the audience as he described how the film was able to compact years of interactions and histories of this neighborhood in Paramount, California into a single day, April 29, 1992. Without directly referencing the mutual prejudices between the Asian American and Black communities, they were able to show how racial tensions had simmered for years until the acquittal of a police officer in the brutal beating of Rodney King, ignited into days of violence and unrest in these economically depressed communities in Southern California.
While Chon is well-known in show business for his roles in films like the Twilight saga and from shows on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, the film showcases new talents to the big screen. Youtube star David So displayed incredible versatility in his role as Eli’s (Justin Chon) brother. Among fans, he’s known for his comedic videos, but brought an intensity that is unfamiliar to people who know his work. Gook is not a comedy by any means, but Yi and Chi told AsAmNews that the part was written for So and it would have been a disservice to his talent, as well as Chon’s, to not include moments of lightheartedness and laughter. Without divulging too much, there is a humorous dance scene between the two brothers and the lead female character Kamilla, played by newcome Simone Baker.
Baker, a young talent they found at a community arts center in Los Angeles, unleashed a heartbreaking portrayal of a young girl with few positive role models who spends much of her time in the shoe store helping out. Often child actors can struggle with fully embracing their character and a hesitation or restraint is obvious to the viewer. Kamilla was representative of the innocence of children, yet there is little of the character that is actually innocent. For an eleven year old, she swears and holds her own among the adults in her life. She steals and skips school, but there’s promise because she is still a child. Her willingness to help out at the store for free exhibits her desire for love that isn’t openly displayed to her in her home. She perfectly captured the spirit of Kamilla and was dedicated to honoring Kamilla and her story. This is the film that will put Baker on the radar of casting directors. Her talent will take her far in such a cutthroat business and she is definitely one to watch.
Gook was filmed on a shoestring budget. Shot in black and white, without access to expensive film equipment, the lack of funds actually made the film seem more reflective of the circumstances the characters were in. Because of this, the shots lacked a gracefulness. Camera movements are rough and choppy. For those prone to motion sickness, sitting in the rear half of the theater is recommended. Had it been done any other way, something would have been lost, the film would come across as less authentic. While this is not my favorite technique for shooting a film, paired with its accelerated shooting schedule, 22 days according to Chi, the way the camera was an asset rather than a sacrifice.
Every once in awhile, there’s a film that sparks a discussion. Just the title of this one can be controversial. A scene in the film actually talks about how the slur “gook” came to be used to describe Koreans and Korean Americans. Guk in Korean means country and was adopted by Westerners as a derogatory term like many others as a way of degrading and dehumanizing ethnic minorities.
After Gook won the Next Audience Award at Sundance, the film’s North American distribution rights were purchased last week by Samuel Goldwyn Films and will be set for limited release in August of this year. Gook plays this weekend at the Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival.
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