Directed by Justin Chon
One can’t deny there is artistry in the way writer-director-actor Justin Chon mounted his multi-cultural indie drama “Gook”. Shot in black-and-white, the film paints realistic scenarios and uses a fierce bittersweetness as its dominant flavor.
Set in the 90s, the story follows Eli (Justin Chon), a Korean American shoe-store owner who struggles to make his business thrive after his father’s death. The first minutes of the film are intended to show how tough life can be in a violent Los Angeles neighborhood where people of distinct ethnicities generally don’t get along. The environment can be quite hostile, which makes Eli and his brother Daniel (David So), his partner in the store and R&B singer wanna-be, to experience racism almost every day, whether coming from the Hispanics or the African-Americans. Detested for no reason, they struggle to protect their goods from being stolen while the fear steps up with the tension and violence escalating in South-Central due to racial frictions, economic deprivation, and social marginalization.
Despite the conflicts, the brothers have a special friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African-American orphan who loves to sing and skating. She frequently skips school just to hang out with them at the store, helping with the customers and filling their lives with a contagious energy. In any case, her intractable older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), is the main responsible for the Koreans’ headaches since he can easily shoot his gun for a pair of new sneakers.
The dynamics are stirred whenever Kamilla teases Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), a Korean liquor-store owner who doesn’t stay put when he sees somebody stealing from his store. Those hilarious situations usually end up with Eli confronting him. Yet, Mr. Kim, who abides by the rules except when driving, suddenly changes from villain to ally when the brothers’ safety is put in jeopardy.
Because hatred and violence always lead to disgrace, Chon envisioned passing that message during the emotionally disturbing final third. Though exciting in many ways, the film’s tail is characterized by a strained acting sequence whose melodramatic edge touches the limit. It feels restrictive instead of enriching.
Still, there are so many things to behold in “Gook”: the emphatic cinematography by Ante Cheng, a lovely soundtrack that ranges from hip-hop to guitar-driven melancholy to Hall & Oats’ Man Eater, and the story itself, fabricated with both feel-good and unsettling moments.