The word “Gook” is a derogatory term often aimed towards East Asians, particularly Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Like many ethnic, and racial slurs, the word has a long and horrifying past associated with it, often linked to the US conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. However, what you might not know is that the word “Gook” comes from the Korean word for country, Hangook, and in Justin Chon’s film there is a brief and touching scene where we are enlightened to the true meaning of the word. Gook is Chon’s second feature film, after his debut Man Up (2015, not to be confused with the film starring Simon Pegg), however Chon is already proving himself to be a fully competent director with an unique visual style and appreciation for the craft of filmmaking.
The film follows the day in the life of Eli (played by Chon) and Daniel (YouTube Star David So), two Korean American brothers, who own a struggling shoe store. The brothers have an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), a straight talking, sassy streetwise 11-year-old African American girl. On the day in question, Kamilla ditches school, Eli stresses about the store, and Daniel tries to have a good time flirting with any women who come by and slack off whenever he can. It seems like just another typical day, until the Rodney King verdict is read and 1992 riots break out. With the chaos moving towards them, the trio are forced to defend their livelihood while contemplating their future and discovering the true meaning of family.
While it sounds like it should be a straightforward drama about race relations, Chon very cleverly adds a touch of comedy to the film which helps strengthen the sense that this is a story set in reality. Shot in gloomy black and white, this feels like a homage to Clerks, the humour in Gook certainly seems to belong in a Kevin Smith film, only thankfully less crass and sexist. But unlike, Smith’s Clerks there is a real sense of trauma that the three main characters have to endure, and we can understand the reasons why they might slack off or find ways of escaping. These are characters who feel very real, down to Earth and human, and Chon never resorts to using clichés or stereotypes.
The cast is very strong throughout the film, Chon plays Eli as a wannabe hustler, who is trying to keep his dead father’s business afloat but knows that it’s only a question of time when the cash registers closes for the final time. On the surface Eli appears aggressive and unapproachable, he has developed a hard skin to cope with the world that surrounds him, but when we see his interactions with Kamilla we see a warmer, kinder and more considerate side to him. So as David, is a dreamer who wants to be an R’N’B singer but ends up recording a track in a closet with dogs barking in the background, he seems carefree but he’s suffering on the inside too. Chon’s father (Sang Chon) also plays as key supporting role as shopkeeper Mr. Kim. He represents the old Korea which Eli is desperately trying to runaway from.
The breakthrough performance, however, comes from Baker who shines as Kamilla. She’s fearless, bold and feisty out in the world but behind closed doors, she is just a scared little child eager to win the love of her gangster brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr) who has been left to look after his sisters after their mother's passing. Baker is a wonderful actress and hopefully she gets the right opportunities to build up her acting career because her talent deserves to be seen.
Gook is a cleverly witted and compelling film, which shows a side to L.A. that we rarely see and has the potential to be a cult classic. With emerging talent from Chon, So and Baker, I highly recommend seeking this film out for its performances alone.