×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Gook’

Winner of the NEXT audience award at Sundance, Justin Chon's smart sophomore feature remembers the L.A. Riots from an Asian-American perspective.

With:
Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz, Omono Okojie. (English, Korean dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6057032/

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, and those burning days don’t feel nearly so long ago in “Gook,” an uneven but compellingly immediate take on that moment in history from a rare Asian-American point of view. Drawing on events from his own childhood, writer-director-star Justin Chon wears his Generation X influences on his sleeve in this initially droll, finally mournful character study of two Korean-American brothers trying to keep their father’s shoe store afloat as cultural relations blister across L.A., as well as the young African-American girl who has a surprising bond with them. Alternating between bristling Spike Lee-style protest and the slacker sensibility of early Kevin Smith — in crisp black and white, to boot — Chon’s sophomore feature wavers uncertainly in tone, getting a little too cute for comfort in spots, but is otherwise a lively, auspicious breakthrough. With a Sundance audience award in its back pocket, “Gook” should manage some niche theatrical play.

“Gook” is a confrontational title for a generally good-humored film — one that otherwise doesn’t get aggressively up in the viewer’s face. It does, however, reflect Chon’s straightforward candor on the subject of anti-Asian racism from all quarters in America. It’s a strain of prejudice that, notwithstanding Paul Haggis’s catch-all social sermon Crash, hasn’t received much attention in modern U.S. cinema.

From his swearing to his streetwear, protagonist Eli (Chon) is to all intents and purposes a born-and-raised Angeleno: straight outta Paramount, just over the freeway from Compton. Native status, however, doesn’t stop Eli and brother Daniel (David So) getting repeatedly, sometimes violently, harassed in their neighborhood by strangers of various races; the film’s frank, wince-worthy scenes of such abuse may look regrettably familiar to present-day audiences in the Trump era of racial and social conflict. Far from contributing a vintage sheen, meanwhile, Ante Cheng’s clear, carefully composed monochrome lensing neutralizes the film’s period ambience: Without the anchoring context of the Riots, this would seem an essentially contemporary portrait.

Street-smart Eli and the more gormless Daniel eke out a living selling dubiously acquired discount shoes to the area’s black and Latino womenfolk, on a run-down commercial street inhabited by a number of other Korean business owners. (One of them is played, in an endearing touch, by Chon’s non-pro father Sang.) It’s not much a life, though, and Eli seems built for something better — though it’s Daniel who harbors a clearer dream, however improbable, of becoming an R&B crooner. (He’s not half bad, either, in a choice of genre that aptly reflects the brothers’ composite cultural identity.)

Making the working day slightly less tedious are regular visits from 11-year-old Kamille (bright-spark newcomer Simone Baker, in her big-screen debut), an orphaned African-American misfit who finds kinship in the brothers’ own societal fringe status — to the consternation of her volatile brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr). In the early stages, Eli, Daniel and Kamille make for a somewhat unconvincingly motley crew, their interactions forcing the film a bit inorganically into high-quirk territory. (The trio’s semi-fantasized karaoke number to Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” plays as a scene from another, lesser, indie comedy entirely.) But once a deeper connection between Kamille and the brothers emerges, the film is on surer footing as the theme of cultural diversity — both within the community and within the individual — comes to the fore, just as background friction in South Central comes to a head. “Gook” isn’t afraid to get emotionally taxing when the chips are down.

For “Twilight” actor Chon, who made his directorial debut in 2015 with the disposable manchild comedy “Man Up,” his follow-up represents a considerably more ambitious step up in all departments from conception to execution. (The premise, as well as some of the screenplay’s roundabout verbal detours, may recall “Clerks” to some extent, but its aesthetic is nothing like as scuzzy.) Chon furthermore proves a charismatic leading man under his own direction, though it’s the condidently vivacious Baker to which the script and a besotted camera mostly defers — beginning with the surreal, strangely serene opening image of Kamilla dancing up a storm before a blazing building. “Everything’s gonna be just fine with a little more time,” she says near the outset — a line repeated in the film’s closing-credits ballad, though given the present moment, this restless film doesn’t necessarily believe it to be true.

Film Review: 'Gook'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (NEXT), Jan. 26, 2017. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: A Birthday Soup Films production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York City.) Produced by James J. Yi, Alex Chi. Executive producers, Justin Chon, Jin Young Lee, Pierre Delachaux, Eugene Lee, Sam Chi, Maurice Chen, David Joe Kim, Gigi Tsui Kim, Nathan Kwong, Raymond Kou, Kirstin Bianchi, Ian Choe, Blaine Vess, Jason Kim, James Sereno, Jason Morales, Edward Oh, Brian Shin, Dennis Kwon, Alan Pao, Naja Pham Lockwood. Co-producers, Nam Luong, Lily Vi Pham, Dan Fisher, David So. Co-executive producer, Joseph Dang.

Crew: Directed, written by Justin Chon. Camera (B&W, widescreen), Ante Cheng. Editors, Rooth Tang, Reynolds Barney.

With: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz, Omono Okojie. (English, Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • Warner Bros., Bron Strike $100 Million

    Warner Bros., Bron Strike $100 Million Co-Financing Deal

    Warner Bros. and Bron Creative have closed a $100 million co-financing deal for five movies, including Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” and Rebel Wilson’s “Isn’t It Romantic.” The deal, announced on Tuesday, also covers the “Joker” origin film starring Joaquin Phoenix; crime drama “The Kitchen,” with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish; action-comedy “Superintelligence,” toplined by McCarthy, Bobby [...]

  • VICE

    Adam McKay Explains the 'Vice' Musical Number He Left on the Cutting Room Floor

    Adam McKay’s “Vice” has clearly divided critics, with some calling it a bold and daring analysis of one of the most pivotal figures in American politics, and others mincing no words in labeling it, full stop, the worst film of the year. (Truly, in the year of a Dinesh D’Souza movie, people are grandstanding with [...]

  • Penny Marshall Dead

    Penny Marshall, 'Laverne & Shirley' Star, Director, Dies at 75

    Penny Marshall, who starred alongside Cindy Williams in the hit ABC comedy “Laverne & Shirley” and then became a successful director, died on Monday night at her Hollywood Hills home due to complications from diabetes, Variety has confirmed. She was 75. Marshall was the first woman to direct a film that grossed more than $100 [...]

  • 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Box

    Peter Jackson's 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Collects $2.3 Million on Monday

    Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” earned $2.3 million at 1,122 theaters in North America on Monday. Warner Bros. released the movie five weeks after it aired on Armistice Day on the BBC. The studio partnered with Fathom Events in the U.S. for a one-day event, marking the largest single [...]

  • Dua LipaVariety Hitmakers Brunch, Portraits, Los

    'Alita: Battle Angel' to Feature New Song by Dua Lipa

    Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel” will feature a new song by Dua Lipa. “Swan Song,” co-written by Justin Tranter, Kennedi Lykken, Mattias Larsson, Robin Fredriksson and Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), in addition to Dua Lipa, will drop ahead of the film’s U.S. opening on Feb. 14. The Twentieth Century Fox action-adventure movie was produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau [...]

  • Les Arcs Festival Unveil Prizes For

    'System Crasher,' 'White on White' Win Work-in-Progress Awards at Les Arcs

    Nora Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” and Theo Court’s “White on White” won the top prizes at Les Arcs Film Festival’s Work-in-Progress session. Both titles were among the 18 films in post-production pitched during the 10th edition of the Work-in-Progress showcase which is spearheaded by Frederic Boyer, the artistic director of Les Arcs and Tribeca festivals. “System [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content