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. Continue Reading →