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Gook

That’s right, folks: For those who aren’t aware, we’re covering a movie whose title is a racial epithet. The film itself removes any doubt of this — the title card clearly spells out the definition of “gook” as a derogatory term for Asians, specifically those native to South Asia. (The term was especially popular among Americans during the Vietnam War.) But later on in the movie, we get a fascinating scene in which “gook” is said to be the Korean word for “country”. For example, “han-gook” is the Korean word for Korea itself. And the Korean word for England sounds like “yeong-guk”.

And what’s the Korean word for America? “Me-gook”. It’s not as powerful here because I’m not a Korean immigrant and you can’t see me pointing to myself, but try picturing it for yourself. It’s a powerful moment, symbolic of the film as a whole.

Gook is set against the backdrop of LA in May 1992, when the Rodney King trial was still unfolding on TVs and radios all over the nation. You’d expect a whole ton of racial tension, especially between white and black. But this film portrays a crisis in which people of all races are at each other’s throats. After all, if black people are going to be subject to all this persecution and hatred, it’s disturbingly logical that they’d want to take it out on those who are supposedly taking away all their chances at prosperity and weren’t even born in this country.

Yes, it seems that there’s a racial hierarchy in this country, such that immigrants can be routinely mugged and beaten up by white people and black people alike. But at least those from South and Central America have the advantage of numbers, with a sizable community that relatively few would risk pissing off. Korean immigrants, however, have no such luck.

Our protagonist is Korean immigrant Eli, played by writer/director Justin Chon. He and his brother (Daniel, played by David So) inherited a shoe store from their father, which they keep stocked with merchandise that, uh… *ahem* conveniently fell off the back of a truck. Eli is struggling to run a profitable business while maintaining some semblance of honest professionalism, even though he’s selling merchandise too expensive for the local clientele to afford. Dan is too focused on his dream of becoming an R&B singer (because how many Korean R&B singers did you hear of who made it big in the early ’90s?) to bother with anything so petty as the store.

And both of them are trying to get by while under constant threat of whatever armed thugs decide to use them as punching bags while passing by. The cops would help, but of course the cops won’t help, are you kidding me?

Into this mess wanders Kamilla (Simone Baker), a young black girl who hangs out at the shoe store instead of going to school. Her pathological obsession with staying out of school seems to go beyond the obvious reasons, and it’s never made clear. Likewise, it’s implied that there’s some kind of family/friendly history between Kamilla and Eli, and this is never explained either.

Kamilla’s siblings also play crucial roles, especially since they’re the ones who raise their youngest sister. Omono Okojie plays Regina, the stern yet maternal older sister. By contrast, Curtiss Cook Jr. plays Keith, the abusive big brother with an itchy trigger finger and a personal grudge against Koreans, Eli and Daniel in particular. (Something to do with his mother? There was some past tragedy that’s frustratingly opaque.)

Last but not least is Mr. Kim, played by Sang Chon (the star/writer/director’s own father). Kim runs a convenience store across the street from the shoe store, and he’s an ornery old fuck driven by self-righteous paranoia.

There really isn’t much of a plot to speak of in this picture. It’s really just a day or two in the lives of these characters. Yet the racial tension keeps everything compelling, especially given the Rodney King backdrop. The whole city is blowing up and long-simmering tensions — between races as a whole and between particular individuals — are finally boiling over with violent results.

All throughout the movie, we repeatedly see the ways in which petty differences push us apart and giant crises bring us together. Characters will curse each other out at great length over five bucks, but comfort each other in the face of some mutual threat. They’ll try to kill each other over pride and ego, but forget all of that in the attempt at saving someone’s life.

Keith is probably the best example of all this. He is the ultimate representation of a city and a people who don’t know how to act in any way except through force. He simply will not stop punching anyone within arm’s reach until he’s no longer breathing. And if no one else is there, he’ll punch himself. Hard. Repeatedly. As he literally does in this movie.

Elsewhere, we have very prominent themes pertaining to immigration, the American Dream, and so on. It’s definitely not as heavy-handed as I’ve seen in other films (for which I’m very thankful), but it’s repeatedly driven home that the Korean immigrants in the cast are fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of respect they can get. They’re struggling to make it in America, in spite of all those who try to get one over and think that they can get away with it because they were born in this country and the Koreans weren’t.

Far more importantly, there’s the basic notion of parents emigrating so their kids can find a better life in another country. What does that mean for the immigrants whose parents are long dead and they still haven’t found better lives? This raises a fascinating notion that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in cinema: The idea that the children of immigrants can look at the home they inherited from parents who sacrificed so much, and possibly decide “You know what? This sucks too. Let’s try again someplace else.”

Sure, that sounds tremendously disrespectful, but isn’t that what their parents did in the first place? Moreover, such concepts as “home” and “family” might mean very different things to immigrants. They’re inherently mutable to those still in search of both, but that fluidity can be an advantage at certain times.

The standouts in the cast are undoubtedly Simone Baker, Chon Jr., and Chon Sr. Baker turns in an elegant performance worthy of a far older and more experienced actor. Sang Chon shows the uncanny ability to act as the old and crotchety comic relief, then spin on a dime and give a heart-rending dramatic performance. As for Justin Chon, he does a remarkable job of handling everything behind the scenes while tearing it up in front of the camera.

In terms of visuals, what’s most immediately noticeable is the black-and-white presentation. It’s not very common to see a movie shot entirely in black and white, especially when the setting is so relatively modern, but it was the right choice here. It gives the whole picture a more bleak feeling without detracting from the “cinema verite” handheld style of camerawork. It somehow adds to the feeling of a desolate California wasteland just outside the view of civilization at large, in which everyone’s out for themselves with neither cops nor God to save anyone. It’s really quite remarkable how the film keeps everything grounded enough to feel immersive and authentic, but with just enough stylistic flourishes to create something unique and distinctive.

Gook suffers from a few thin characters and the occasional lack of significant backstory, and the intentionally loose plot may not be to the liking of some viewers. Even so, this picture is deeply thoughtful, unflinchingly bold, and superbly presented. There’s some effective use of comic relief to go with the heartbreaking drama, and the themes related to race and immigration are deftly crafted. There aren’t a lot of standouts in the cast, but even the worst ones are passable and the good ones are damned good.

This is definitely not a movie for the faint of heart, but I gladly recommend it all the same.

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