The merciless police beating of Rodney King has found its way back into the mainstream consciousness, acting as prologue to the likes of The People v. O.J. Simpson and backdrop to Straight Outta Compton. It’s the beginning to the modern nexus of media and systemic racism in its most violent form, and sadly its potency has not waned even twenty-five years removed. Simply put, it may as well be the now. It certainly feels as such in Justin Chon’s Gook, an admittedly uneven film with a lot on its mind, acting as an ever-present undercurrent to racial strife of a different sort. Where its O.J. and N.W.A. adjacent contemporaries examine the top-down effects of systemic power as it trickles from the top, Gook feels like the final destination; a bloody runoff at the intersection of communities of colour living under America’s boot-heel and at each other’s throats.
It is also, at its core, about the tenderness of reconciliation in whatever forms its characters can manage.
The film is bookended by a question, one that takes the form of a dreamlike vignette un-tethered from the rest of the narrative. A young black girl dances harmoniously as the flames of discord tear down the solitary L.A. house behind her. It’s the closest the film gets to any actual rioting (even though it takes places on the day the riots broke out) and it’s also the closest it goes towards abstraction, veering occasionally towards formalism as its characters find moments of joy amidst this black & white neo-realist nightmare in the form of song and dance.
When Korean-American brothers Eli and Daniel aren’t being assaulted on the street by black or Hispanic gang members, they spend their days working at their father’s old shoe store, enticing customers from as wide a racial cross-section as their usual assailants. The shoe store also serves as refuge for Kamila, a young black girl with flowers in her hair, whose escape from both home and school is her Korean found-family; but this refuge is limited and under constant threat. Eli and Daniel’s family history happens to intersect with Kamila’s (in ways that aren’t pleasant for her brother to recall), and the young girl also constantly draws the ire of the nearby elderly Korean shopkeeper, who uses what little English he knows to pelt her with insults. Before the various dynamics even come into view, the backdrop is crystal clear. These communities hate each other, and a mere friendship between them is an act of rebellion.
Gook is as racially charged a film as any, yet much like its characters, it’s unconcerned with examining the causes of America’s broken inter-community relations. It does, however, have a keen interest in examining the effects. Chon himself (of Twilight fame) steps into the role of Eli, a character who exists somewhere between the diligent workmanship of his disciplinarian parents and their immigrant generation, and the swagger and affects of an assimilated first-gen Asian American. He’s hard because his surroundings taught him to be hard, especially in the absence of his parents, though his brother Daniel doesn’t have the same adherence to work ethic. Where Eli’s survival is keeping his business going despite its tainted, bloody history for everyone in the film, Daniel’s is trying to hustle his way into the local underground music industry with his singing talent, a talent he hides from his family.
The third and final piece of their puzzle is Kamila, who brings a sense of joyful balance to the store whether she’s there to sweep or make runs to the back. This is Kamila’s escape, one she too hides from her family for fear of reprisal, and when the trio are together is when the film is at its most beautiful. Their collective dynamic is sweet and tender, a family that commiserates and celebrates and protects one another no matter the cost, and their little shoe store island feels in constant danger of colonization, be it South Central rioters who might head their way or even customers who interrupt their impromptu dance sessions – like shaking someone awake from a dream.
Gook’s underlying melancholy comes from the fact that these moments of joy are all temporary. These communities have weathered too much and they lay the blame at each other's feet, so much so that violence, whether a result of the riots or not, feels like the only inevitable outcome for the shoe store trio. How that violence is constructed and built towards may feel haphazard and interchangeable (the film’s penchant for tonal shifts, while resultant in great individual scenes, comes at the cost of narrative coherence), but part of its necessary poignancy comes not only in what it says about Korean American communities but what it leaves unsaid.
“Gook,” the anti-East Asian slur said to have originated in the American military during Korea and Vietnam, is the mark Eli bears. It’s tagged on his car, and it’s on the lips of the other American communities that hate him. But “gook” itself (or its original “gug”) simply means “country,” as he explains to Kamila. Just as “hangug” means Korea”, “migug” means America. “Migug,” Eli says, sounding it out loud, unable to escape the fact that it sounds like “Me gook.” His home is his mark, inseparable, for better and for worse. Just like all the other characters of colour, Black, Korean or otherwise. Victims of circumstance, merely in search for those moments where even when everything burns, they can find it in them to dance.