Movie Review: Gook
By Matthew Huntley
September 12, 2017
At first glance, Gook seems like it's striving to be the latest poster child for independent cinema: it has been shot in black and white; it has no recognizable actors; it's set in a handful of locations around a nondescript section of Los Angles; and it tells a serious, dramatic story about the growing tension between two races, set against the backdrop of the 1992 L.A. riots, with interstices of comedy, experimental film, and even music video. We imagine writer-director-star Justin Chon envisioned this project as the sibling of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Kevin Smith's Clerks.
And yet, despite its familiar “independent film” characteristics, Gook stands on its own. This is not a smug carbon copy of those earlier films, although it's likely Chon drew inspiration from them, but rather a self-contained, thoughtful endeavor that gains more traction and depth as it goes along. By the end, we appreciate the filmmakers and cast's dedication to the material because they've given us something important to think about and people we believe in.
Chon plays Eli, a young Korean man, angry and short-tempered, who has inherited a ladies shoe store from his deceased father. Eli has a slightly younger brother, Daniel (David So), who's cheerful, playful and artistic. He too works at the store but takes his job less seriously than Eli. For instance, Daniel is more willing to hand out “manager's discounts” to attractive young ladies in hopes of scoring a free hook-up. Eli, on the other hand, remains grounded and cautious, cognizant of the fact they're behind on rent and very close to losing the store unless they make a lot of sales.
The store closing would not only be bad for Eli and Daniel, but also Kamilla (Simone Baker), an African-American girl just on the verge of adolescence who has befriended the Korean brothers and hangs out at their store more or less on a daily basis. She goes to school, but amidst the riots taking shape after the Rodney King verdict is announced, her teachers have told her to “take the day off,” at least according to Kamilla. She often bends the truth, which we can understand given her rough home life. Her older brother, Keith (Curtis Cook Jr.), like Eli, is quick to anger and vengeful. He carries a gun and resents the Koreans for what happened to his mother many years ago. If he knew Kamilla hung out with Eli and Daniel, there'd be hell to pay, which is another reason Kamilla sees the store as her sanctuary - a place where she can be herself, feel appreciated, and engage with her friends on a personal level. She's become an unofficial employee, performing tasks like sweeping, changing signs, and retrieving shoes from the back room.
Even though Kamilla is identifiable and the main emotional hook into this story, she's no angel. She's picked up Eli's smoking habit and occasionally steals from the incorrigible and always-suspicious Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), who owns the convenience store next door and has his own complicated history with Eli's family. It's primarily curse words that get exchanged between him and Eli.