November 6, 2017

CINEMA | Justin Chon Riots – 'Gook' Strikes x VAFF 2017

VAFF 2017 | Justin Chon | Gook

Korean-American actor Justin Chon clearly has more talent and ambition than he's been allowed to showcase thus far in his career. For for sophomore directorial effort, the ultra low-budget, black-and-white indie movie provocatively titled Gook, he dramatizes a day in the life of two working brothers and a young African-American girl as the 1992 L.A. riots break out amidst the Rodney King verdict in nearby Paramount, California.

The film stars Chon and YouTube comedian David So as hustler brothers, Eli and Daniel, who run their tiny dump of a family shoe store after the murder of their father. Simone Baker adds a child's perspective as an eleven-year-old black girl who they take in. The three have a sparkling chemistry as they go about their day while violence starts to breakout in nearby South Central Los Angeles.

Filmed mostly handheld gorgeously by cinematographer Ante Cheng (a USC grad student), it uses its limitations to dramatize the first night of the infamous unrest and rioting in L.A. superbly. Through direct/blunt dialogue, following characters up close, and some severe character interactions, Chon carefully builds a constant sense and threat of violence through shared oppression.

VAFF 2017 | Justin Chon Simone Baker | Gook

Often funny, visually poetic, and referential, Gook is such a welcome hallmark of the '90s independent cinema boom and its themes of tense race relations and systematic oppression. The film owes much to early Spike Lee as a sort of west coast Korean version of the seminal Do the Right Thing through a Better Luck Tomorrow sheen in its expression of common yet conflicting racism and its bucking of model minority stereotypes.

Chon's own father, Sang Chon, plays an aging, first-generation Korean immigrant store owner who echoes the struggle of Asians in America who distrust everyone. In fact, there are no white characters as the film exclusively interacts with black, Latino, and other minority actors from the Korean/Asian perspective.

Gook is often too raw, visceral, meandering, or undisciplined but always compelling and confrontational. It sublimely captures the ever present yet casual nature of brimming racial tensions between the African-American and Korean immigrant communities. Its distant vision of the L.A. riots is a striking examination from a largely unseen perspective.

Gook screened as the centrepiece presentation of the 2017 Vancouver Asian Film Festival.


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