On April 29, 1992, the Los Angeles riots began after a trial jury acquitted four LAPD officers of excessive force in the videotaped arrest and beating of Rodney King. Sixty people died, eight of whom were killed by police officers, and two killed by guardsmen.
Long before the tape came out, community leaders had complained about harassment and police brutality. The riots spotlighted the mistreatment, poverty, and hopelessness of minority communities, foregrounding simmering tensions between Blacks, Latinos, and Asians.
Enter “Gook,” a derogatory word for Asian Americans, spray-painted on the car of a Korean-American business owner, Eli—played by Justin Chon, of “Twilight” fame, who wrote and directed the film—when the unrest begins.
On the eve of the riots, Eli and his brother Daniel (David So) are running their late father’s shoe store in Paramount, CA. The film functions as a sort of elegy, laying to rest the unsettled demons of a racially-charged era.
Working in a predominantly African-American community, the brothers strike up an unlikely friendship with an 11-year-old black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker), whom they treat like their little sister. The film is told from her perspective, starting with a surreal opening shot of Kamilla dancing to the blaze of a burning building.
This is perhaps Chon’s most brilliant move, foregrounding the experience of a little girl caught between communities and families whom she loves dearly.
Kamilla lives in a house with her sister, Regina, and gangster brother, Keith. Because of her unstable home environment, and her penchant for skipping school, she spends most of her time at the shoe store with Daniel and Eli, who were raised by their single father until his recent death.
Daniel dreams of becoming an R&B singer while Eli bears the responsibility of keeping the store going—even though they’re in debt to the neighborhood liquor store owner, Mr. Kim, whose loan to their late father, to keep the store open, has given rise to a constant feud.
When Eli hatches a plan to get ahead of the game, scoring a stash of valuable sneakers, his plans are jeopardized when riots break out in nearby Compton. On his way to record his demo tape, Daniel gets caught in the chaos and ends up getting jumped by Keith and his gang. With his life in danger, he tells the gangsters about their stash of valuable sneakers.
Now with both of their dreams in jeopardy, Eli and Daniel must fortify the
store against looters with Kamilla’s help—until things take a tragic turn for the worst.
As store owners, the brothers must defend their turf or fall prey to the looting and violence that claimed more than 1,000 buildings, largely businesses owned by Koreans and other Asian ethnicities.
Though 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, “Gook” elevates this history to operatic proportions, partially owing to Chon’s decision to shoot in black and white, plus the use of archival footage of the Rodney King beating.
Brilliantly written and shot—though some scenes, like the karaoke number, felt like something from a different film—“Gook” gets at the heart of racial conflict during one of the most contentious riots in American history, looking through a variety of lenses.
The film breaks open like the beautiful, shifting pieces of a kaleidoscope. Each moment, something new is revealed about the world, the characters, the past, the spaces they protect and defend, and a world that is seemingly falling apart around them.
It’s no wonder it won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance. “Gook” is a definite must see at the 2017 American Black Film Festival. It’s a wonder the film was relegated to the World Showcase, which puts it out of the running for the Grand Jury narrative feature prize. Nevertheless, we’ll definitely be seeing more from actor/director Chon in the future.