Movie Review: Korean-American brothers ride out racism and the 1992 LA riots in “Gook”

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Whatever America wants to think of itself, pushing that “melting pot” myth for generations, damned if most of us don’t go straight for the race card when we can’t think of a legitimate reason to dislike somebody.

That was never clearer than than the Rodney King arrest in 1991, with scenes of an almost ritualistic mass police beating playing around the world, followed by the inexplicable acquittal of those cops and the riots that ripped across Los Angeles in 1992.

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” all but predicted those events by tapping into that simmering rage.  Korean-American filmmaker Justin Chon approaches the subject from the not-so-ancient-history angle with “Gook,” a low-budget “Do the Right Thing” that looks at the riots and the country that hosted them from a Korean-American point of view.

Chon and David So play brothers trapped running the family shoe store in the middle of a 1992 racial flashpoint. Paramount, California is on the border of South Central, a place where knock-off or stolen sneakers — Eli (Chon) buys them off a “just fell off a truck” hustler — will sell, if they can just avoid getting jumped or burgled by the assorted black and Chicano gang-bangers living around them who covet that footwear.

Daniel (So) has dreams of becoming an R & B singer, and sleepwalks his way through the work. Eli resents this slacking off, hates the neighborhood and the racist slurs (“Gook”) he hears, as a matter of course. He’s young, American-born, and rages at the liquor store owner across the street, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon) for the slurs he uses, in Korean, when muttering about their shared customer-base.

The brothers both try to stand up for themselves. What else can they do? But that just leads to gang beatings. No, not every person of Asian descent knows a martial art.

Their saving grace is the little black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker) they let work in their dumpy, used-to-be-a-burger joint store. She wears a flower in her hair, she sings, tries to skateboard and dances like no one is watching, skips school to hang out with them and brings out the best in the brothers. And being a wise-beyond-her-years tween, she knows it.

“Who protects you guys?”

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Chon is on his surest ground almost literally copying “Do the Right Thing” — the business confrontations with customers who flip on the “You people always trying to rip us off” when they don’t like the price, the harassing clusters of young men in drive-by-mobiles who refuse to let anybody, much less a “Gook,” mind his own business.

The relationship with Kamilla is odd, but understandable as we learn the back story. She’s the outsider-looking-in who wants to know what “Gook” means, and gets a funny and touching lesson in racial slurs and Korean from Eli. But Kamilla has a gang-member brother (Curtiss Cook. Jr.) who doesn’t approve of her hanging out with the brothers, or of the brothers for that matter.

Chon, an actor turned director (“Man Up,” TV’s “Dr. Ken”) gives this a period piece a parable feel by shooting “Gook” in black and white. The camera work isn’t cell-phone simple, but polished — taking us into apartments, the store, down the street — immersing us in this hostile environment the brothers must navigate.

The acting rarely strays from the real and minimalist. There’s little fussy or thespian about this picture, with Baker the stand-out player, and only Chon’s depiction of Eli’s eternal short fuse feeling like “a performance.”

There are anachronisms in characters’ speech and behavior, but Chon skillfully handles the moment people in this world pick up the news of the King verdict — on the radio, from pager messages — and instantly turn it into fury, then a cynical opportunity for payback, punishment and theft.

“Ain’t nobody watching over us, it’s just us” the brothers know. And each, in his own way, manages to be in the wrong place at the very worst time.

Touching, disheartening and surprising, “Gook” punches through the noise of 2017’s clamor over race with a sobering look at a defining moment in modern American history. It’s a simple, straight-forward and compelling reminder that the villains and the victims were spread further across the spectrum than we’ve ever dared to accept.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, profanity, vandalism and theft

Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So, Sang Chon

Credits:Written and directed by Justin Chon. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:34

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