Writer and director Justin Chon’s Gook feels like the type of hard-scrabbled micro-indie that doesn’t quite get made anymore.
Or, at the very least, its path to the big screen feels very “1990’s” in the way it was produced, distributed and praised through word-of-mouth and festival exposure. In this day and age of ‘hi-def formats and-eventually-somehow-released-on-VOD-or-streaming’ method of distribution, Gook did it the old fashioned way … which feels that much more invigorating for a film whose subject, style and performances ring utterly honest and captivating.
The style is glorious black and white photography that not only captures the fading California sunset glare with acuity, but manages to wring every ounce of blackness from its shadowy nighttime sequences. That it was captured by USC film student Ante Cheng (while still in school) reverberates well for a long and healthy career in the business.
The subject is Los Angeles, 1992, on the eve of the Rodney King riots that would set the city (and its shadowy nighttime) ablaze with violent fires and staggering acts of pent-up violence.
The performances focus on two Korean-American brothers, Eli (director Chon himself) and Daniel (David So). Relying virtually on no one but each other, Eli and Daniel manage a run-down shoe shop on the corner of a vacant lot in the middle of a racially-charged neighborhood. Not only do the brothers have to endure constant threats of violence from local street gangs (which they seem to incite by their own vulgar responses to the thugs), but the differences within their own community seem just as aggressive.
The owner (Sang Chon) of the small grocery store across the street wants nothing to do with the Americanized brothers, even though it soon becomes evident he houses a relationship with Eli and Daniel that goes much deeper than ‘neighbor’. In a film full of racially-charged stand-offs and miscommunication between Korean and African-Americans, the most damning aspect of Gook actually resides in the attention given to the divide between old and young within a close-knit society that should support and help each member.
Compounding Eli’s mounting problems is young Kamillah (a breakout performance by newcomer Simone Baker), an African-American neighborhood kid who routinely hangs around the store despite her brother’s threats against it. The unlikely bond created by these three gives us hope that they’ll survive and thrive even as the film builds towards the infamous night of riots.
Even though Gook lapses into portions where it feels like there’s no screenplay, simply relying on ‘I’ll-yell-louder-and-more-haphazardly-than-you’ (a true staple of 90’s indie cinema!), it’s a film that’s alternatively sweet and knowing about its milieu. Sharp moments of humor and depth highlight the first half of the film, which of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking when Gook culminates in shocking acts of violence. Its overriding message and the way it hones in on the needless reverberations of pig-headed racism and deep-seated inabilities to accept others despite the color of their skin remains a strong sucker punch to the gut that’s not easily forgotten.
Trudging out of strong reviews from Sundance earlier this year and playing on the festival circuit all summer, Gook signals grassroots ambition from a talented set of newcomers and I look forward to whatever they choose to do next.
(Portions of this review were published earlier this year when the film premiered locally at the Dallas International Film Festival.)
Gook opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 15 at the Landmark Magnolia.