Justin Chon’s Gook aspires to the same level of complexity as Do the Right Thing and La Haine, two films about the violent consequences of racism. Chon sets his film in Los Angeles, which grants him a change of scenery but not, unfortunately, the same ability as Spike Lee and Mathieu Kassovitz to work characters and setting into a seamless expression of pain and injustice. On the contrary, the film’s assessment of fatalistic tragedy winds up bearing a considerable resemblance to the exploitative conflicts in something like 1979’s The Great Santini, in which generational discord between a father and son with jockeying ambitions intersects with a gang of vilified and impoverished neighborhood citizens capable only of exercising thoughtless violence.
As Gook opens, it’s April 1992 in Paramount, California and every television screen runs the tape of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of police. The constant stream of mediated violence funnels across Los Angeles, momentarily unifying a city that’s teetering on a furious rebellion against insufficient judicial process. At least there’s a tenable possibility of ethnic solidarity in response to legal ineptitude; in practice, as Gook has it, racism cannot be condensed to its systemic origins in police brutality. As such, following the April 29 verdict acquitting four LAPD officers for their vicious attack on King, Chon’s vision of Los Angeles is one of perpetual suspicion and confrontation between the communities themselves, so that African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos are directly pitted against one another.
Anchoring these dynamics are characters who function like chess pieces in Chon’s preconceived and often stilted approach to getting at these underlying “truths.” Chon himself plays Eli, a Korean-American man who owns and operates a small women’s shoe store (most of the store’s inventory can fit into the back of his car) with his brother, Daniel (David So). Both men are targets of Latino gangs that roam the local neighborhoods in cars while barking insults and threats as personifications of a constant, looming danger, but their actions lack sufficient context to imbue the assaults with a weightier purpose. In essence, Eli and Daniel are the only characters in the film that are given depth and interiority (nearly every scene features one of them in some form of conversation or reflection), which comes at the expense of the other minority characters who are part of surrounding communities.
Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old black girl and unofficial employee of the shoe store, functions as Gook’s third lead. But despite her prominent placement in the narrative, the screenplay maneuvers Kamilla primarily as a device to integrate both Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), an ornery, possibly violent grocery store owner, and Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), the girl’s brother, into Eli’s path. Keith is a snarling cliché who becomes threatened by Kamilla’s suggestion that Eli and Daniel feel more like family than he does. Chon interweaves these characters through overt declarations of anger fueled by racial hostility. At its most tin-eared, the dialogue in Gook would be right at home in the morality-play machinations of Paul Haggis’s Crash.
However, Gook is a shrewder screed than that Oscar best picture winner, not least because Chon, given the film’s governing shift to the almost exclusive perspectives of Korean-Americans, makes the intriguing choice to position the black characters as stand-ins for bigoted white cops. Once Keith’s hostility spills into a racist rant and outright desire to assert territorial dominance over Eli and Daniel, the pair are pinned down atop their store while Keith’s crew circles them from below, weapons drawn. Chon’s filmmaking doesn’t articulate this shift in any conscious way; there isn’t, per se, a running commentary on this matter. Nevertheless, the recalibration in racial villainy is there, and indicates how any unchecked system of oppression consistently enables the powerful over the vulnerable, no matter the ethnicity of those involved.
Gook’s ending hinges on a preposterous outcome borne from screenwriting opportunism. By opting for easy tragedy through senseless violence rather than working through the ins and outs of the narrative’s potentially complex questions, Chon fumbles the take on how the characters’ anger fits into the greater landscape of L.A. during the aftermath of King’s beating.