Gook review justin chon Simone BakerYear: 2017
Director(s): Justin Chon
Writer(s): Justin Chon
Region of Origin: US

Rating: Unrated
Digital, Black and white, 94 mins

Synopsis: Two Korean brothers and a street-smart African American girl brave the LA Riots.  (Source)

Black lives definitely matter, and Hollywood’s made great strides to make sure this crucial truth is realized. For all the gradual inclusion, however, there are still a lot cultures left out in the cold. Enter Justin Chon’s Gook, which unearths the infamous L.A. Riots through a Korean American perspective. Contrasting warmth with unflinching grit, Gook visits the past to find a complex reflection of today. The film’s message is only amplified when we realize how much easier it is for hate to go viral in today’s social media climate. Ultimately, the film pleas for understanding, proving that when cultures clash, we all suffer. Sending an already passionate story over the edge, powerhouse performances by Simone Baker, David So and Chon himself make this directorial debut resonate with maturity, devastation and grace. 

It’s 1992, Paramount California. Graphic footage of Rodney King’s beating looped on every TV station while the world waits for justice. As King’s trial comes to a close, two Korean brothers, Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So), along with their friend Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African American girl, do what they can to stay afloat. Together, the three run a humble women’s shoe store, selling merch acquired from the back of a truck. Though they don’t have much, the three have carved a niche amidst tenuous social tensions just waiting to boil over. On a day just like any other, riots break out across town. While a war zone develops quite a ways from their store, Eli, Daniel and Kamilla soon discover how fast hate can spread, and that it only takes a simple misunderstanding to stoke the flames of hate and fear.  

Told exclusively in shades of black and white, Chon’s fictionalized account of his childhood experience is potent and urgent. It also continually evolves. The film’s first act plays out like a hang-out film. It’s here we see the beauty of Eli, Daniel and Kamilla’s makeshift world. These three don’t always see eye to eye, but they’re undeniably family. We feel safe with them even as constant threats loom in the distance. Just as our guard is down, Chon immerses us into a nightmare that’s inescapable. Suddenly a switch is flipped, and the film goes from blissful, day-in-the-life portrait to a fight for survival. As things escalate, a story about facing insecurity locks into place, with its characters learning that while fear can turn into anger, anger can also turn into compassion. Through it all, the story is one that takes a critical look at how we perceive each other, and how quickly we can make wrongheaded assumptions built on misconception and learned prejudice. 

Gook review Simone BakerProviding an intimate view on a massive event, the film’s performances are its humanity. Pulling double duty behind and in front of the camera, Chon shines as Eli. Chon feels lived in and real, blending genuine angst with a tender side that’s never too far away. David So’s Daniel is the oddball of the bunch, a goofball, wannabe R&B singer who is honest with his emotions and armed with an endearing sense of humor. Together, these two have great chemistry, adding unsaid texture to their complex relationship. Make no mistake, however, this is Simone Baker’s show. Bringing Kamilla to life, Baker is the film’s heart, adding innocence, humor and ferocity to every scene she’s in. Baker’s performance never feels less than pure, making Kamilla a real fighter who combats the film’s darkness with grace. Honestly, the film is worth a watch just for this trio of performances. It’s a testament to Chon for allowing his characters to be imperfect people struggling with who they are, and who they want to be.

Blending primal instinct with raw social observation, Gook overflows with purpose and a beating heart. Chon’s film never strays from the darkness that threatens to overtake his characters, but the grace he finds within desperation overpowers all in ways that feel earned. With taut tension running through its veins, and a call for unity amidst the burning fires of dissension, Chon’s film is a cautionary tale of how we’re doomed to repeat the past unless we wake up and strive to meet each other in the middle. 

SG