American films

Film review: Gook – Korean-Americans in Los Angeles riots drama feel the racial tension

Tough and touching, this film stands out from the usual self-obsessed American indie fare with its sympathetic characters and dynamite performances

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:43pm

4/5 stars

This tough and touching American independent film shows the effect the 1992 Los Angeles riots had on a pair of working-class Korean-American brothers and their African-American neighbours in an LA suburb. Stark and incisive, with many moments of levity, Gook offers a rare look at impoverished Americans trying to get on with their lives in impossible circumstances.

“Gook”, we’re told in the opening sequence, is a derogatory term for Southeast Asians and East Asians. Two Korean-American brothers, Eli (Justin Chon, who also directed and scripted the film) and Daniel (David So) are working hard at their run-down women's’ shoe store in an African-American neighbourhood. The brothers are beaten by both Blacks and Latinos on a regular basis. But Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African American girl, adores them, and spends all her time helping out in the store, even though her family disapprove.

When the Los Angeles riots break out, an already tense situation becomes even worse, and violence gradually makes its ugly way to the store.

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While an analysis of racism – in its many manifestations – lies at the core of the film, some extremely sympathetic characters and dynamite performances all round make Gook much more than a message film. Its focus on telling it like it was – and, sadly, still is – make it stand out from the usual self-obsessed American indie fare.

A fitting opening film at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York, Gook is moving on a human level, and doesn’t need melodrama to spark the emotions. The Hong Kong audience will be interested in its depiction of a lesser seen side of the Asian experience abroad.

Gook opens on November 23

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