Indie film Gook is a timely and dramatic retelling of LA history that reminds us to keep up the fight against racism [Review]

By Ben Young

Using the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a backdrop, Korean-American actor and director Justin Chon shows us the playing field is still far from level

By Ben Young |

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Korean shopkeeper Eli (Chon) forms a beautiful friendship with 11-year-old Kamilla (Baker) in Gook.

Korean-American actor and director Justin Chon takes a genuine look at race relations in the US and Hollywood with the critically acclaimed indie drama film, Gook.

The film’s story is centred on two Korean brothers Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) who are struggling to look after a shoe store inherited from their father. Although they form a beautiful and unexpected friendship with 11-year-old African American girl Kamilla (Simone Baker), it is sadly tainted by heightening tensions between the brothers and Kamilla’s bigoted uncle Keith (Curtiss Smith Jr).

Gook also reminds its audience that, most of the time, racial discrimination goes both ways. Mr Kim (played by the director’s father Sang Chon) is a South Korean immigrant who owns a liquor store across the street. He refuses to speak English and shows little respect for black customers, and worries Kamilla will try and steal from his store.

The film reaches a climax with a depiction of the racially-fueled 1992 Los Angeles riots, triggered after two police officers were acquitted of brutality charges despite there being video evidence of them ruthlessly beating African American Rodney King.

As the riots are taking place, the police essentially abandoned Koreatown, the district in which Eli and Daniel’s store resides in favour of predominately white neighbourhoods, and the brothers are forced to defend their store themselves.

Gook also shows that racial discrimination goes both ways.
Photo: Golden Scene Company Ltd.

The film combines a touching story with powerful, memorable dialogue that keeps viewers engaged from start to finish. The unsteady camera work combined with the black and white colour scheme helped portray the bleakness and chaos that took place in the Los Angeles during the 90’s.

While racial relations have improved greatly since then, the film and its title - a common racial slur for Asians in the US - is a powerful reminder of the discrimination Asians still face in Western societies. While it’s usually Black, Latino and Muslim discrimination stories that make headlines in the media, Chon reminds the world that racism towards Asians is very much alive.

As a Chinese-American who recently spent four years living in Los Angeles, I can say that I did not experience any outright racial discrimination during my time there. However, that could have something to do with being half-white and attending a university with a high rate of international students.

With that being said, there were still very subtle twinges of racism that even I experienced. I did encounter the occasional jerk – both white people and black people - that emitted an aura of racial superiority or would make the occasional snide, inappropriate remark about my race. Also, it was a very strange shift in dynamic going from one of the “white boys” in Sha Tin College, to becoming one of the “token” Asians in my mostly-white fraternity. Mixed kid problems I suppose.

Overall, Los Angeles is a melting pot for people of many different races, so racism is far less prevalent there than in most other American cities. But even in LA, and even now, discrimination towards Asians certainly exists. 

This is especially true in regards to Hollywood - in which Chon believes Asians are greatly under-represented, more than even African and Latino-Americans. It’s one of the reasons he decided to create Gook ­- which is a rare example of a full-length English-language film with two Asian-American co-stars.

“My perspective on things has changed a lot over the years,” Chon said in a Reddit AMA. “Earlier on I fell in love with acting, but over the last 16 years I started to realise my options as an Asian-American actor were very limited. So I’ve come to realize that creating my own films in addition to the more mainstream work I do is very important in changing that reality.

Overall, Gook is a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that racism is often a far more subtle and complex issue than meets the eye.

Edited by Jamie Lam