Film Review – Gook
Gook takes a rare look at race relations in the United States and does it with surprising delicacy that avoids preaching but never sacrifices its message. When the film starts we see an eleven year old African American girl we later learn is named Kamilla (Simone Baker) dancing while there is a small building on fire. The context for this is not given at first but it leaves a nice mental image that doesn’t distract from the rest of the film but makes us wonder about how we will get there. Shot in black and white–a risky move–works well here, letting the characters be the main focal point and not letting the landscape, where we know trouble is brewing, become the story. The Rodney King trial is on the TV and the verdict is coming and since we are in the ghetto neighborhood we are left with uncertainty about what is about to happen.
Getting into the movie proper we are introduced to our lead Eli (Justin Chon), a mid-twenties Korean American trying to get by in a ghetto neighborhood by selling shoes with his brother Daniel (David So) who seems less interested in working and more interested in impressing girls and becoming a singer. Besides having an unhelpful brother Eli is also trying to avoid Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), an African American gangster who seems to have a personal and racial hatred towards him.
Eli has just scored a large box of new sneakers that has the potential to turn his business around. We see that, despite being small, the store has a good reputation and gets a decent business and that him being Asian hasn’t stopped people from coming to the store. One of them is young Kamilla, who we find out is Keith’s sister who skips school often and tries to hang out with Eli. Eli is a bit frustrated with her for some of her antics such as stealing from an older Asian man’s grocery store and skipping school, but he immediately defends her when the clerk hits her for her stealing and still lets her hang around the store and help out.
Their are no major events beyond Kamilla and Eli working at the store, but there is a foreboding of things to come with the riots of Los Angeles, and the uncertainty of how it will take effect. We learn more about Eli and Kamilla’s families and that there is more to them than just a passing friendship between these two. These two are the rock of the film and their sense of camaraderie is explored in their willingness to tell each other about what they are worried about and their dreams. This friendship was also cemented with doing little things like dancing around the shop, and Eil taking Kamilla out to eat. In contrast I found Eli’s relationship with his brother Daniel not always the most interesting. While it wasn’t out of place, Daniel has a side adventure that never carries the same weight as the main story and doesn’t really impact anything major within the main story.
Justin Chon is the director and writer of the film as well as its lead actor. He has a talent for creating mood and movement in this film. The work he does along side Simone Baker is really beautifully done, getting across their history and personalities without everything becoming simply exposition moments. He has a natural sense of building tension by setting up Keith as an antagonist and first making him appear simply a racist but then we see there is more to the relationship than we originally thought. There was one glaring error when Eli says that his car won’t start and then several minutes later uses that same car to do donuts in a parking lot before the car going back to not working. Not a major problem but it did stand out as a mistake on the filmmaker’s part.
This is a slightly diverting tale that does its best work when it has its two leads in focus but is able to navigate even the weaker material so that it doesn’t distract or take away form the center story. The ending is very effective by bringing back the beginning shot in a beautiful way that sets the tone for the ending perfectly. Nothing is simple here. Hatred and anger are not just because of differences, but history keeps making impact in the present as well. Sad but still very true.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director/star Justin Chon.