Justin Chon’s second feature film “Gook”, which received the Best of Next Audience Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in 2017, is an interesting but ultimately uneven mixed bag. At first, it attempts a mildly sensitive character drama about race and generation gap with the 1992 LA riots in the background, but then it stumbles more than once as trying to shift itself between jarringly different tones during its second half, and I was eventually left with much dissatisfaction even while recognizing the pulsating talent behind this flawed piece of work.
Chon, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Eli, a Korean American lad who has run a shabby women’s shoe store along with his younger brother Daniel (David So) in an African American neighborhood of Paramount, California. Because they have already been behind two months’ rent for their current residence, Eli must earn more money by any means necessary, and the opening scene shows him buying a bunch of stolen new sneakers at a cheap price from some African American acquaintance of his.
The movie subsequently observes how things often can be difficult for Eli and Daniel due to their ethnic backgrounds. At one point, Eli is ridiculed and then beaten by a group of Hispanic gang members just for dressing like them, and you may be amused a bit while noticing how Daniel’s attitude and attire are not so far from what we usually observe from young African American dudes from ghetto neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, he has aspired to be a R&B singer someday, but his aspiration looks ridiculous to his older brother, and he usually causes more exasperation from his older brother whenever he does not pay much attention to their family business.
And we also get to know a young adolescent African American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker), who prefers to hang around in Eli and Daniel’s store rather than go to her school. While both of her parents are currently absent, she has lived with her two older siblings Regina (Omono Okojie) and Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), and it is quite clear from her first scene that she is not particularly close to either of her two older siblings. As the one who has supported her family alone, Regina seems to care much about her younger sister, but Keith is usually more interested in spending time with his thug friends, and it also turns out that he hates Eli and Daniel a lot for a personal reason to be revealed later in the story.
Nevertheless, Kamilla wants to spend her time around Eli and David for the exact same reason, and Eli and David do not mind that at all. There is a spirited moment when they and Kamilla dance together during David’s impromptu performance in the store, and I particularly like a brief tender scene where Eli gives Kamilla a certain small object which poignantly reminds them of how things were nicer in their past.
In the meanwhile, the world surrounding them is about to be turned upside down. It is April 29th, 1992, and everyone in LA and its surrounding urban areas is paying attention to the upcoming verdict on those police officers who brutally assaulted Rodney King during their attempt to arrest him. Once that unjust verdict comes out in public, numerous riots happen here and there in many urban areas including South Central, and the mood also becomes a bit tense and nervous in Paramount.
However, the movie takes a rather distant attitude to what is going on around its main characters during its first half. When Eli and Kamilla happen to see smokes arising from somewhere in other urban regions, the ongoing riots still feel like a lyrical catastrophe observed from the distance to them, and Eli is not particularly concerned about whether the store will be all right during the following night.
Of course, the story inevitably delves more into the racial tensions among its main characters during its second half, and we are accordingly served with a series of melodramatic moments, which do not get mixed well together mainly due to an array of plot contrivances and awkward tone shifts. In case of what is supposed to be a climactic sequence around the end of the film, it is so clumsy and artificial in its blatant manipulation of characters and their motivations that I only came to observe the supposedly devastating outcome from the distance, and that is why the final scene does not work as well as intended, though I appreciate that Chon gives us a sort of inverse version of that striking climactic moment in Spike Lee’s great film “Do The Right Thing” (1989).
At least, the overall result is far from a total failure thanks to the considerable skills and efforts from Cho and his cast and crew members. Thanks to cinematographer Ante Cheng, the movie, which is incidentally shot in black and white film, has a number of poetic visual moments accompanied with authentic period background and details (I was delighted to notice a jar of kimchi inside the refrigerator in Eli and Daniel’s residence, by the way), and Chon and the other main cast members including his own father Sang Chon, who plays the cantankerous owner of a nearby liquor store, are well-cast in their respective roles.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend “Gook” because it is a rough piece of work still in the need of more control on its overall tone and attitude. I personally think Chon’s subsequent work “Ms. Purple” (2019) is a bit better in comparison, but that film and “Gook” surely show that he is another major Korean American filmmaker after Lee Isacc Chung and Andrew Ahn, and I will certainly pay attention to his upcoming next film.