Besides your discomfort, one effect of writer-director Justin Chon choosing the title Gook for his electric, impassioned second feature is a suggestion of definitiveness, a suggestion that, for better or worse, this isn’t just the story of its characters but that of a people.
The film, a comic drama tinged with tragedy, is set on the day in 1992 when South-Central Los Angeles erupted after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Often, it’s a powerful corrective: In a subplot here we witness the story behind the stereotypical image, familiar from the news and garbage like Falling Down, of a Korean shopkeeper caught up in ugly confrontations with customers. This shopkeeper, played by Chon’s father, pulls a gun on a preteen African-American girl (irresistible newcomer Simone Baker) who he believes has been shoplifting. Much later, as he listens to other local Korean business owners updating the community on a radio broadcast about attacks on their stores, he explains to a young Korean-American man that, back home, every man had to serve some years in the military.
The young man seems surprised by this, mentions that he always thought his own immigrant father had made that up, and then somehow gets around to mentioning what he plans to do with his life: He’s going to be an R&B singer. Now it’s the old man who doesn’t understand.
At Gook’s best, Chon captures, with sharply memorable dialogue, both the essence of his particular characters but also the broad drift of generations. We meet two Americanized young men who have inherited their late father’s ratty shoe store; they work the counter, even hustling to stock it with some choice kicks a friend sells off a truck, but do so more out of familial obligation than any passion. Much of the film’s first half is low-key, local-color comedy, shot with a free-roaming camera and an ear for crackling street talk. “You people always trying to rip us off,” a black woman says to Daniel (David So), the brother who wants to be a singer, as he rings her up. “You people?” he snaps. “Bitch, you never heard of fucking taxes before?” The initial hang-out aimlessness, and the black-and-white photography, invites comparison to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but Gook is more accomplished, more convincing and often prickingly tense, as its characters can’t curl up in pop culture and hide from the world — both brothers get jumped by some toughs even before the riots. For all that, Eli (Chon), the protagonist, gets caught up in welcome glimpses of everyday rhapsody: the splendor of an automated car wash, a three-person dance party.
Chon shares strong scenes with So, whose character Eli must upbraid, and Kamilla, the girl accused of stealing by the shopkeeper across the street. She hates school, and hates her home even more, so she hangs at the shoe store, insisting she can help the brothers, who pretend at first only to tolerate her begrudgingly but clearly can’t resist her smile, her high spirits, her sweetness and her hustle. All three leads give convincing, charismatic performances, even in Chon’s extended takes, which can find his actors shouting at each other for full minutes. As in all movies that study life over a day, little happens and everything happens, more than is credible.
The other film that haunts Chon’s is, of course, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, that masterpiece of neighborhood observation and inevitable conflagration. Lee’s miraculous film finds empathy for everyone, even the racist schnook son of the pizzeria owner — they’re all individuals, never types. It’s here that Chon’s film is troubling in ways its creator probably doesn’t intend: Gook has a villain, the older brother of Kamilla, who keeps siccing his posse on the brothers. In one excruciatingly lengthy scene, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) screams at Kamilla, telling her that those “gooks” are just using her, that they use everybody, and demanding that she tell him where she scored a pair of those high-dollar sneakers. Then, as the city burns, he of course races to the shoe store. This incident has none of Lee’s sense of tragic inevitability, and Chon’s late-in-the-film efforts to humanize Keith — to root the heel’s fury in a cycle of violence — aren’t persuasive enough to wash away the sense that another cycle is repeating: the onscreen demonization of black men.