Set in Los Angeles during the 1992 race riots, Gook – the spellbinding second feature from writer-director Justin Chon, following Man Up – looks at bigotry through the eyes of two Korean brothers caught in the firestorm. Chon, best known as an actor in the Twilight series, plays Eli, who teams with his brother Daniel (David So), a wannabe R&B singer, to run a women’s shoe store that their father established on the border of South Central, where the customers are mostly black and Chicano. Eli and Daniel are of the community, but stand outside of it. White peeps aren’t the problem, they’re barely present. In fact, Eli saves his anger for a fellow Korean, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the filmmaker’s father), the liquor store owner across the street who flashes a gun at anyone who’s even thinking of stealing.
The situation is as provocative as the film’s title, but Chon isn’t interested in fanning the flames. From an Asian-American perspective, Chon feels the rage roiling in Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing, but he also relates to the playful indie spirit of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, shot – like Gook – in black-and-white and on the cheap.
It’s an uneasy blend that kicks the film off track from time to time. But Chon’s talent is indisputable as he shows the brothers dealing with daily insults and harassment from gangs of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians who still live by the rule of divide and conquer. Even the familial bond the brothers enjoy with an 11-year-old black girl, Kamilla (the sublime Simone Baker), is marred by the hatred of her gangbanger brother Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.).
The violence escalates as the community is caught up in violence and looting incited by the Rodney King trial verdict that exonerated four LAPD officers in King’s savage beating. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, set half a century ago, Chon’s Gook uses the past to speak to a tumultuous present. Chon has created a hardass yet hypnotically beautiful film that snarls and sparks to incite, not a fever in the blood, but an urgent conversation about what makes us human. Godspeed.