by Charles Kirkland Jr.
Another side of the Rodney King trial is brought to life in the movie Gook.
Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (Daniel So) are two Korean brothers who work in a small shoe store in Los Angeles in 1992. They have inherited the shop from their father and are struggling to keep it alive. An 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) seems to be their only friend in a neighborhood that is mostly African-American. As the LA riots break out, the limits of the brother’s bonds, their ties to the shop and even their relationship with Kamilla are all tested.
This second directorial effort from Justin Chon (best known as Jae from the TV series Dr. Ken) is a powerful film that delves into the unfair and unjust racial prejudices that Koreans face on a daily basis and how those prejudices came to a head during one of the most racially explosive times in American history. Chon, who also wrote the screenplay, cleverly shows that there are more commonalities to the American experience, especially for second-generation Korean Americans. Much like African Americans, these Koreans suffer indignities unjustly, have forgotten the rich legacies that their forefathers have left them and are striving to reach the “American Dream” that has been made almost nearly unattainable for them.
While Chon and So are the body of the movie, Simone Baker’s Kamilla is the heart. Kamilla is a precocious and stubborn child who is also an engaging and delightful treat to the film. Baker’s performance is a breakthrough worthy of recognition. She exhibits a master’s level of range of emotions from petulance and curiosity to anger, defiance and impetuousness in a dizzying span of short time in the film. Chon does a great job of channeling Baker’s abilities through the three acts of the film.
The soundtrack and score of the film are a great resource to the film. Songs like Hall and Oates’ Maneater and Ice Cube’s It Was A Good Day ground the film in the era of the setting while celebrating the energy of the time. Roger Suen composes a score for Gook that is driving and emotional and serves as a perfect complement to the film.
Based upon his work in this film, Chon’s future seems pretty solid as this film debuted at Sundance last year to rave reviews and Chon won the Best of Next there. Chon has also been signed to direct a feature for new studio MACRO (Fences).
Gook is unrated but features strong language, some perilous situations and violence. In a time where conversation and understanding is needed, Gook provides a glimpse into Korean realities and thereby ours as well.