After seeing the groundbreaking documentary LA92 earlier this year on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, my eyes were opened to an overlooked piece of Asian-American history. We often see racial discord in America through the narrow lens of black and white conflict, but the issue is much broader and multifaceted than that. One of the revelatory triumphs of LA92 was the way it documented the racial tension that existed between the African-American and Korean-American communities living side by side in South Central. During the riots, Korean business owners were forced to take law and order into their own hands—using guns and bats to defend their stores against looting. Gook limns the first days of the LA Riots from the Asian- American perspective—a dramatization the likes of which Hollywood has never seen.
The movie opens with the definition of the word “gook.” It’s defined as a demeaning term for an East or Southeast Asian person. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, GI’s would use the term to describe the enemy. In an interview writer/director Justin Chon gave Take Two’s A. Martinez, he explains the history behind the word and what motivated him to use it as the title for his film.
"When G.I.'s and military people came over, Korean people would say 'Migug saram. Migug.' 'Migug' means “America” and what that word actually means is “beautiful country”…that word was taken and turned against us into a derogatory term...I wanted to take that word back and also explain where it comes from…It takes the power away from the word once there's understanding behind it."
In the movie, a Korean-American shoe-store owner named Eli befriends a young black girl in the neighborhood of Paramount, CA—right next door to South Central. The skinny, awkward unkept Afro-haired girl named Kamilla wears a white t-shirt, a black book bag strapped to her back and a skateboard underneath her feet. She also wears a fake flower in her hair. Instead of going to school, most days she “helps out” at the shoe store. Unbeknownst to Kamilla, there was a significant family event that took place at the store when she was only a baby. It was devastating for both Eli and Kamilla’s families and catastrophically changed their lives forever. Over the course of the film, deep seeded resentments intensify and ultimately come to a shocking climax. Winner of the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, I believe Gook is the Asian-American equivalent of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
Beautifully executed from the cinematography to the powerful acting, the movie is crisp, sharp, polished and very real. Stylistically, Chon’s choice to film in black and white didn’t feel contrived or devised to manipulate the audience into feeling something false. The landscape Chon is portraying is a bleak and gritty one, and the film doesn’t try to do anything to camouflage that. In fact, its starkness is symbolic—emphasizing the overwhelming lack and scarcity the characters experience everyday. In one of my favorite, but sadly heart-breaking scenes, Eli asks Kamilla why she wears a flower in her hair. She answers something to the effect: all she ever sees is concrete and dirt so why not wear a flower on her head? In that logical and innocent reply, the gravity of her impoverished circumstances and the human need to see natural beauty in one’s environment, profoundly hits home.
In the midst of violence and a general underlining tension where everyone has their guard up—where everyone is in a perpetual state of fight or flight—where saying “good morning” to someone gets a “shut the fuck up” in response, I sighed with relief every time there was a joyful moment—and there were many. The characters crack jokes, have impromptu dance parties, and sing songs to amuse themselves. Their silly and comedic antics remind the audience that embracing the lightness of being no matter how dire the circumstances is fundamental to survival.
Gook also tells the story of the common disconnect between first generation immigrants and the second and third generations born and/or raised in America. In the film Mr. Kim owns a liquor store across the street from the shoe store. Mr. Kim primarily speaks Korean and has cantankerous battles with Eli, which often involves suspicious mistreatment of Kamilla. There is a certain level of decorum and respect for elders that Mr. Kim seems to be culturally nostalgic for that’s completely lost on his western assimilated younger counterparts. As Mr. Kim interacts with Eli and his brother Daniel, the audience begins to understand the torrid history that connects them.
It’s through Mr. Kim’s story that Gook subtly illustrates how prejudice is born. It only takes one incident—one negative experience with one individual who represents a particular group (race, gender, sexual orientation etc.) to create a deeply personal bias against the entire group of people that individual represents. For some, one bad apple does spoil the bunch.
Caught between two families with a painful history of hurt between them who love and value her—in the midst of a racial conflict that exceeds her understanding, Kamilla's character is the embodiment of Rodney King’s famous phrase, "can't we all just get along?” As the great voice of reason—the crusading equalizer with the purest of hearts, Kamilla’s impeachable need for belonging and connecting to her alluded past, delivers a shot of compassion right to the gut. Gook commands an empathetic response from its audience by artfully telling the story of an unlikely alliance that eclipsed the racial divide and social upheaval of one of America’s most ignominious moments in history.
Los Angeles Showtimes:
Regal LA Live Stadium 14 1000 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015 (844) 462-7342