×

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

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content