The story: Eli and Daniel are two Korean American brothers struggling to keep their father’s shoe store afloat. It’s 1992 in Los Angeles and the Rodney King verdict looms over a multiracial LA, where everybody is looking to survive on their own terms and values. The brothers are the unlikely pals of Kamilla, a sassy 11-year-old African American girl from the neighborhood who ditches school to secretly hang out at their store. Tensions run high when Kamilla’s brother Keith discovers that she’s spending time with “those gooks” and he begins plotting revenge.
Chon employs a cinéma vérité approach to the filmmaking that absolutely works for this subject matter, coupled with the bold choice to shoot black and white. It’s no wonder the film won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance this year. Reflecting on the film, one word keeps echoing in my brain: risky, risky, risky. For example: one sequence in particular feels like a reenactment of the 1991 fatal shooting of African American teenager Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a 51-year-old female convenience store owner from South Korea.
No wonder the film won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance this year. Reflecting on the film, one word keeps echoing in my brain: risky, risky, risky. For example: one sequence in particular which feels like a reenactment of the infamous 1991 fatal shooting of African American teenager Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a 51-year-old female convenience store owner from South Korea.
Fellow indie filmmakers will no doubt have a full appreciation of the challenges Chon faced working with a micro-budget, not allowing those challenges to get in his way and taking every opportunity to thoughtfully craft both imagery and performance.
From my descriptions of the film thus far, you might have the misconception that this is only about heavy subject matter but Chon also infuses wonderfully funny moments into the narrative and shows us a truly complex—and authentic-feeling—portrait of relationships, without easy pat resolutions to the challenges the characters face during these tumultuous times.
Chon’s exploration of perspective in the film is impressive. There’s a scene where Kamilla asks Eli (played by the director) what the word “Gook” means. At this point, one might expect for the character to launch into a diatribe on the subject. Instead, he offers the girl a different perspective—one that allows her a deeper insight into Eli and into the Korean American experience.
Post-screening, the audience was treated to a Q&A between Chon and Ava DuVernay. It was truly satisfying to witness the connection between these filmmakers as their discussion cycled through topics of inspiration and the challenges of production. Although much time was spent talking about the challenges of telling a story about people of color, the discussion would quickly turn to how focusing on underrepresented experiences helped Chon deliver such a compelling story—one that feels familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time.
Dissecting one the scenes, DuVernay asked Chon about one character in particular: a Korean man who owns a liquor store across from the shoe shop. As it turns out, Justin’s own father played the part. To top it off, Chon claimed that his father was “basically the Macaulay Culkin of South Korea” when he was a child.
DuVernay and Chon also discussed the film’s title, explaining how subject matter that challenges and maybe offends some people also creates opportunities to face problems head on. “We need to face [these things] instead of tiptoeing around the subject, because we get nowhere.” Chon aptly stated.
More to the point, Gook is a film that takes risks and it was fascinating to hear from Justin what his process was and some of the choices he made in order to achieve the results he and his cast and crew were after.
Gook opens in theaters August 18, 2017 at ArcLight Hollywood and the Regal LA Live Stadium 14. For more information, please visit the film’s website.
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