A shocking title for some viewers, who may be unwilling to utter such a derogatory term. For others, it may be an unfamiliar term, devoid of the negative connotations associated with it. "Gook," a controversial and often incendiary term used for people of Asian descent, is the title of Justin Chon’s sophomore film, on which he served as writer, director, producer and star.
Gook is set in Paramount, California, a city just across from the bridge where the 1992 L.A. riots started, during the first day of the riots. Eli (Chon) and Daniel (Youtube personality David So) are two brothers running a women’s shoe store left to them by their late father. Eli struggles to keep the store and his father’s legacy alive, while his brother Daniel attempts to pursue his dreams of becoming an R&B singer.
During the riots, the two brothers strike up an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11 year-old African American girl and a bubbly, tomboyish truant who prefers to help out at the brothers’ store than be with her own family, to her brother’s dismay. Meanwhile, the three are also caught up in an ongoing feud with the Korean store owner across the street, played by Chon’s real-life father Sang Chon, whose shoe store is looted during the riots.
The film takes place on the first day of the riots, with television and radio news reports cluing you to the time period. However Gook is not a film about the L.A. riots; they simply serve as a backdrop for the complex relationships formed during this event.
The film’s success comes largely as a result of the strong chemistry between Chon and Baker, its two leads. Simone Baker delivers a particularly impressive performance, especially for such a young actress. Kamilla’s resilience and spirit come across in Baker’s performance, and we see how she often uplifts the worn down Eli. Eli and Kamilla’s friendship blossoms in the store, as they both attempt to fill the voids left by their parents, despite the fact that they never truly knew them.
Gook is also noteworthy for depicting moments of emotional vulnerability by Korean and African American men, two racial groups in which men are often shamed for making emotional displays. Not only are Eli and Daniel allowed to express their frustrations in the film, but so is Kamilla’s older brother Keith, played by Curtiss Cook Jr. in a standout performance. Kamilla acts as a bridge for these interracial and intergenerational relationships, bringing out expressions of intimate emotions in the male leads. Curtiss Cook Jr.’s emotionally raw performance elevates what could have easily been a two-dimensional proponent of racism into a nuanced, flawed yet sympathetic patriarchal figure.
For a film with such heavy themes, Gook is also disarmingly funny. While the friendship between Eli and Kamilia can be tumultuous at times, the energy that Baker delivers as Kamilla brings a light hearted, humorous touch to their relationship. In often bleak circumstances, the characters in Gook find hope and levity in their bonds, reminding us that we can find support even in the most unlikely places.
The film’s production did not come without its struggles. On opening night of the 40th Asian American International Film Festival in New York, Chon discussed some of the concessions he was asked to make in order to please the executives financing the film. Chon said he was asked to add a white cop breaking up the riot, and to add star power to the film by casting a rapper as the African American lead. “No, that’s distracting!” he responded.
Devoid on star power and a limited production budget, it is the dialogue that carries the film. Through their dialogue, the characters in Gook reveal the intertwined histories between these racial groups and families, the bond carried between all the characters, and the small microaggressions underlying larger racial tensions.
Gook is also an achievement for Asian American representation in film and television, where the often limited roles available for Asian American actors typically fall into model minority stereotypes. Rarely do we see stories like this, of blue-collar, working-class Asian American families, a minority group often targeted for racial violence in areas like South Central Los Angeles.
Each character’s development allows the viewer to fully empathize with their emotions, understand the underlying roots of the racial animosity of the era, and in some ways, to understand the motives that contributed to the violent eruptions of the riots. The film does not have an obvious political agenda or a singular perspective about the riots; it is, rather, a story that humanizes just a few of the many people affected by these events.
Gook is a landmark in Asian American cinema. The film reclaims not only a disparaging term, but also the Asian American identity that has been washed away by lack of representation in American media. But the film cannot be simplified to just an Asian American film, for this is American story: a side of the American experience that has gone untold for 25 years.
You can read Lacy's interview with Gook director Justin Chon from this year's Asian American International Film Festival.