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 Post subject: Justin Chon: Gook (2017)
PostPosted: Mon Aug 14, 2017 3:28 pm 
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Local tragedy during citywide riots

Experienced TV and film actor Justin Chon, directing and costarring in his second, and solider feature, seeks urban poetry and sweetness in the tensest time in the worst of places: the south Los Angeles ghetto at the outbreak of the 1992 Rodney King riots on April 29, 1992. The setting is Paramount, across the freeway from Compton. What's out there, telegraphed in flipped-on TVs and pager signals, is tumultuous disorder. Chon's canvas is modest, mostly restricted to the immediate environs of a tiny, marginal Korean shoe store run by two brothers, seen in the dingy poetry of sun-and-shadow-drenched black and white images.

Central to the tale is Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old black girl with a skateboard and no taste for school who'd rather be a "runner" at the shop. To her, Eli (Chon himself) and his brother Daniel (David So) are more welcoming and "family" than her hostile older brother Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), and sister. Why the hostility, and how complexly the black and Korean families are interconnected, will emerge in th course of this short film. There's not much to join these local events with what's breaking out in South Central Los Angeles and all over the city, but there's a strong sense of emotional chaos and the violent tenor of life at this moment. Alternately playful, violent, tragic, striving, Gook is a wildly uneven film, but you can never say it doesn't care.

"Gook" is explained at the outset, in case you don't know. It's basically like the N-word for Southeast Asians, and it comes from American soldiers of the Korean and Vietnam wars. As Eli explains to Kamilla, when it gets painted all across his car by Hispanic gang members, it just means "country" in Korean, and the best joke is that America is "Mee-gook." Eli and Daniel get beat up on by local blacks and menaced by Hispanics all the time; after a while their faces are a mess of bruises and cuts. Yet there's the warmth between Kamilla and the Korean-American brothers and everything is so close even the enemies seem like relatives.

Most of the time the action is with the Koreans, who are none too friedly with their Korean liquor store owner neighbor, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), played by the director's non-actor father, who does quite well for himself in one key scene, speaking mostly in Korean (and in fact had a store himself that was looted during the King riots). Once Kamilla has to go home, and the movie follows her for a scene of terrifying anger and emotional instability from Keith. Curtiss Cook, Jr. is an explosive actor who burns up the screen. Simone Baker makes a powerful debut.

This is a movie that belongs to the cinematographer and the actors, not the writer. It's good from minute to minute, sometimes almost magical. The images are so poetic in their use of soft grays and hazy light and angles of sunshine it seems a pity the action is too jumpy and tense to savor them. But just as thre's no particular plot element to link the historical events with the local ones, there's nothing to give overdiding sense to the tragicomic action. This is lighthearted and playful at times, but obviously Eli and Daniel are in personal danger most of the time. Eli is dedicated to keeping the little shop their late father left behind alive, picking up questionable consignments of shoes, concerned to make a profit. Daniel doesn't give a toss. His paradoxical aim at this moment is to make a demo tape showing off his talents as a singer and composer of R&B songs (and the actor, David So, is surprisingly good).

Gradually we learn about tragic events at the shop. The way it all sorts out may seem somewhat makeshift. Nonetheless it's pretty exciting that Chon has dealt with these issues in such an intimate way, not only at this 25th anniversary moment when black anger with judicial pardons to police and racial tensions are at a new peak, but because the Asian urban situation in America has been so under-chronicled on film hitherto. Chon's treatment is raucous, vernacular, expletive-intense and passionate. Another hand at the writing might help next time.

Gook, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan.2017, where Justin Chon as director received the audience Best of Next! award; also at Montclair, Munich and Seattle. Opening in US theaters starting 18 Aug. 2017 at Arclight, Hollywood and Regal LA LIfe Stadium Theater; national release begins 25 Aug. 2017.

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