I first became aware of what Justin Chon could do in the Sundance 2015 movie Seoul Searching. I’d seen him in sometimes thankless supporting roles, but giving him the lead showed his screen presence and depth in a comedy with real drama at its heart. So when he returned to Sundance as writer/director and star of Gook, I wanted to see what he had to say. His message is as powerful and heartfelt as his performance.
In April of 1992, Los Angeles is about to erupt in riots over the Rodney King verdict. Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) don’t know that yet of course. Eli’s just trying to keep his father’s shoe store afloat, and keeping neighborhood girl Kamilla (Simone Baker) out of trouble.
Shot in raw grainy black and white, and with a confrontational title like Gook, Chon’s film feels unabashedly personal. He would have been Kamilla’s age in 1992, but surely the tensions explored still exist. Eli feuds with the Asian owner of the market across the street, and Kamilla’s older siblings blame Eli’s family for their mother’s death. It probably didn’t even take something that specific for African-Americans and Asians to find conflict in racially charged cities and eras.
As much as this is Chon’s statement about social conditions, it is a vehicle for him to give a great dramatic performance too. Eli is the responsible one, struggling with his slacker employees and this disobedient kid, not to mention violent rivals.
The 1992 nostalgia is palpable. Everyone had pagers before cell phones were accessible, but the pager codes they came up with were the 1992 equivalent of texting. Eli thinks a shipment of the latest Air Jordans will save his business. I was never personally into shoes so I only have vague memories of how much people cared about a celebrity branded corporate product.
The riots mostly happen off screen, appropriately because Eli and Daniel would avoid it, and because of course Chon can’t stage a riot in a shoestring indie film. They do drive into it once and the sound and tensions make it clear it’s happening. Chon has the maturity to understand and illustrate the universal message: violence is never satisfied. Even if you surrender to the bullies, they’ll keep coming back for more trouble.
We’ve seen ‘90s race dramas but Asians are often left out. Maybe they got a line in 1989’s Do the Right Thing in the racial epithet montage, but that was rightfully Spike Lee illustrating his own personal experience. Chon picks up the baton to tell his story and we can see the big picture it represents.