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.