‘Gook’: Q&A with Ava Duvernay and why Independent Filmmaking and Representation Matters

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by Tom Nguyen

The indie film ‘Gook’ by director/writer/actor Justin Chon (‘Twilight’) opens in LA theaters today, and has been highly talked about, not only for its provocative title. The story of two Korean-American siblings who own a store in a predominantly African American Los Angeles neighborhood, and the consequences of their friendship with a young black child during the first day of the LA riots, won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Audience Award and was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films for national release — a rarity for an independent film written, produced and directed by and starring folks from a minority community…but I’ll get into Hollywood’s diversity problem and Chon’s astute observations later.

The film shot in black and white follows one day in the life of a street-wise Eli (Justin Chon), intent on keeping his late father’s shoe store afloat, despite daily struggle in Paramount, a suburb next to Compton. His brother Daniel (a very funny David So of Youtube popularity) is more interested in aspirations of being a singer than helping Eli mind a store long past its better days. Kamilla (a brilliant 11-year-old Simone Baker making her debut), a young girl from the neighborhood, is the heart and soul of the movie, as an orphaned girl drawn to the store and the brothers, looking for more parental love and affection, than she receives at home from a sympathetic but absent older sister, Regina (Omono Okojie) and stern older brother, Keith (a very intense performance by Curtiss Cook Jr.).

The film is a humanizing, honest snapshot of complex race relations in a lower income Los Angeles neighborhood that isn’t often portrayed on screen. While the film starts out with what could have been tired cliches, like Eli’s multiple encounters with Latino gangsters or the racist Korean store owner across the street who pulls a gun on Kamilla, there’s a purpose to Chon’s depiction of the simmering racial tensions of this multi-ethnic community — the day happens to be the acquittal of white police officers in the Rodney King beating trial and as the riots start in nearby South Central, those tensions boil to the surface, with moral dilemmas and serious consequences for each character.

I don’t want to give much more away, and in between emotional scenes that are like punches to the gut, are poignantly comical and tender scenes, in a film whose characters ring true the more the movie reveals their complex relationships to each other. It’s rare to see tension between Korean and African American communities reflected from a Korean American perspective, and the movie is a deeply personal film by Chon, some of it sketched from his own upbringing. The kindly Latino handyman, Jesus (Ben Munoz), is based on a person who was a fatherly figure to Chon, and if the scenes with the liquor store owner, Mr. Kim, seem genuinely volatile, it’s because he’s played movingly by Chon’s own father, Sang Chon, whose real life store was looted in Paramount during the LA riots.

In a lively Q&A with director Ava Duvernay (‘Selma’, ’13th’) at the film’s LA premiere at Sundance NEXT Festival, she asked Chon how the film has been received in the Korean American community and he says there hasn’t been much opinion by the older Korean community, reflecting the generational divide and lack of interest in what a young American-born Korean filmmaker is doing. Duvernay, in response, challenged anyone who is a critic “who look like us…to criticize our work” especially with work from a cultural perspective.

Well, as a Vietnamese refugee, who still remembers the stinging taunts of “Gooks, go back to your country”, I can finally say I’ve learned the origin of that word. Chon reveals both in the movie and further in talking with Duvernay, who preferred not to say the word aloud, that it simply means “country” in Korean and America is literally translated as the beautiful country. So, Chon feels it was such a travesty that US soldiers appropriated what was meant as a beautiful compliment to them and their country and turned it into a racial slur. He purposely titled his film ‘Gook’ because he feels “we just need to face these problems head-on…instead of tip-toeing around the subject because we get nowhere…so the title, let’s talk about it, let’s educate and let’s put it out there…and now everyone at least knows what that means, and if it’s ever said in that racial slur context, you know that’s not cool.”

Duvernay, as a fellow filmmaker of color, says unlike her white colleagues, she’s always asked to answer about race but never asked about filmmaking itself or her craft, so it was refreshing to be sitting with Chon, saying “Isn’t it nice to hear people of color filmmakers talk about craft? It’s like a unicorn.” Due to a limited budget, the film was shot digitally and cinematographer Ante Cheng, still a USC graduate, has done an amazing job in black and white that was meant to convey a timelessness to the period.

In an interview at a screening at USC School of Cinematic Arts that included Chon, Cheng, Baker and 2 producers, Chon says enough time had passed for him to make the film and reflect on whether much had changed since the 1992 riots. He feels the film is as relevant as ever and it’s shocking to him that we’re still dealing with police brutality today.

The other obvious subject on my mind is Hollywood’s lack of diversity, and the challenges the filmmakers talked about illustrates the many barriers to people of color getting their stories and perspectives represented. Executive producer James J. Yi explained that it was difficult to secure financing because “on paper, people [didn’t] think that having a film with 2 Asians and a black girl makes sense commercially.” Thankfully, Yi says, the community stepped up, from friends in the industry donating their time and expertise to the music, like Roger Suen who composed the film’s score, to all the “young people and young people of color who repped…hooked us up, helped us” as part of the community effort to fund their kickstarter campaign.

Asked if he meant to make a film specifically from an Asian-American perspective, Chon says, “If I’m going to make a film, where I’m not taking studio money, and I gotta privately finance, I’m going to tell my fucking story…it was by design..and if I’m going to tell my story, I’m going to serve two underrepresented demographics: Asian American men and African American females.” On the topic of representation in Hollywood, Chon hammered the point that “there’s a difference between diversity and representation. Diversity…we’re just there…okay we need to fill a quota…so they just put [people of color] in the show arbitrarily…so that’s diversity, it’s just the face….but representation to me is does it represent an honest experience or does it represent what our experience is in this country…and I think those are the two differences.”

As to how to address the problem, Chon feels it’s very difficult to change things from the top down. Forget the protests of white-washing of Asian roles and characters by Hollywood, he suggests, and instead pour energy into changing things from the bottom up, by doing what it takes to make our own films. “Our stories matter and that we make films that are authentic to us,” Chon says, stressing that there’s no lack of Asian American talent…just lack of opportunities to prove themselves, both in front and behind the camera. “It takes time and it takes support…it requires money to practice…so if we’re not getting behind our artists and giving them the space to fail…no one makes their first movie and it’s impossible for them to be Scorsese right out of the gates.”

To stress the importance of supporting independent filmmaking, Yi says, “This film really rebuilt a belief in me that the film industry doesn’t create film art…artists make film art…and the community backed us up…and we think we did something very authentic with what little we had and we want this to be a shining example and an inspiration to all filmmakers and to the industry itself, that there is a new audience, there is a new industry, and there is finance available for this type of filmmaking to exist.”

Simone Baker ended the Q&A on an appropriate note when she was asked, growing up as a young black woman in America, what she took away from being in a film that is so politically relevant right now. She astutely pointed out that many of the problems the characters of Eli and Keith had were due to misconceptions and misunderstandings about each other. They are essentially the same people but both are so involved in their own problems, they never had a chance to empathize with the other. ”I just really took away that sometimes people need to be selfless and think about what people are going through or what other people could possibly be going through.” 

[UPDATE] August 20, 2017: To illustrate how relevant and timely this film is, an incident just this week circulating on social media involves the ongoing boycott of Liquor Land in South LA for what community members describe as racist and offensive treatment of black customers.

‘Gook’ opens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 18th, 2017, at Arclight Hollywood and Regal LA Live Stadium, and at select nationwide theaters on Friday, August 25th, 2017

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