From April 30 to May 4, 1992, Los Angeles was enraged. What finally set it off was a verdict. Four white LAPD officers were found not guilty of the severe beating of Rodney King, a black man, which was caught on tape. The riots that followed would be remembered 25 years later, and Justin Chon’s new film, GOOK, tackles the topic from a different perspective.
GOOK is about two Korean-American brothers, Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So), who own a struggling women’s shoe store where an 11-year-old African-American girl named Kamila (Simone Baker) hangs out during school hours. Over the course of the film, the King verdict is read and the riots break out, but the story is surprisingly quieter than you’d think. It focuses on the everyday interactions of those in the neighborhood rather than throwing its audience into the belly of the riots. It offers some context to the tension between the Black community and the Korean business owners.
It’s a superbly acted film. Comedy is sprinkled throughout, which adds a depth to a story of anger, but also guilt, aspirations, and who we call family. For Chon, it was a little more personal. He was just shy of 11 at the time (like Kamila in the film), and his family business was looted on the final day of the riots. He even cast his father–a popular child star in Korea during the ’60s–to play the role of the convenience store owner, Mr. Kim, who butt heads with the three main characters.
It’s obvious that Chon has a lot to say on this topic. He’s got skin in the game, but he also felt like he needed to voice it. With other films in the works on the same topic, it was important that the Korean-American experience wasn’t left out of the reflection. A quarter of a century is a lot of time, and while some things changed, many other things haven’t. I finished the film thinking a lot about how this historical moment still has its reverberations felt today. I interviewed Chon, David So, and Simone Baker to peel it apart and understand what went in to making GOOK.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
My first question was an obvious one, but I needed to know: why did Chon choose to shoot the film in black and white? He tells me about the 1995 French film, La Haine, being a big influence. A young Arab man is beaten into a coma by cops, and a riot erupts as a result. In the aftermath of the violence, three of the young man’s peers wander around their neighborhood trying to deal with their anger when they come across a police officer’s gun.
“That film was shot in black and white so that was the biggest reason. Secondly, I just wanted the audience to relax and focus on the relationships right off the bat. I didn’t want them picking apart whether it was period perfect or not, or looking at the color palette. With black and white, you can really direct attention because the eyes are just drawn naturally to lighter areas. It’s something that my DP and I talked a lot about.”
Without color, the lightening was king. There’s a scene where Daniel dances seductively in the store. The lighting is soft and gives off this dive bar smokey feel. It’s hilarious thanks in part to So’s face as it exaggerates the sultry look. So is no stranger to comedy. He has a popular comedy channel on YouTube and his Kim Jong Illah #1 Husband sketch had me cackling long before watching GOOK. I asked him what it was like taking on a more serious topic for his first feature film.
“I think it’s easier for comedians to do dramatic roles than it is for dramatic actors to do comedic roles. This [film] was very representative of my life growing up as a kid so it wasn’t so far detached from me as a person but doing the dramatic parts was definitely a task and very daunting.”
So was four years old in 1992. What he remembered was how connected the Korean community was at the time (and still is). “LA is not that far from where Sacramento is and even though that happened out in LA, there was a huge outcry and sympathy from a lot of other Korean business owners that had friends out in LA.”
“Before the role, I did know about the riots and I knew that it was very bad and stuff but I didn’t really focus on what it was actually about,” said Baker who wasn’t alive then. “My mom, Justin and the producer helped me do some research so I could find out what the riots were and how it was going to [play out] in the story.”
There’s a scene in the film where Mr. Kim pulls a gun on Kamila at his store, and I didn’t notice the significance of that scene until I did some research for the interview. A few days after King’s beating, Soon Ja Du, a Korean liquor store owner, shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head after accusing her of stealing juice. I asked Chon if Harlins’ case was on his mind when he wrote that scene.
“I was absolutely conscious of that case. I mean you can’t talk about the LA riots without talking about that case and Latasha. That [scene] was a little symbolic of that but at the same time, I’ve gotten this question a lot where people were like, ‘Why didn’t you talk about Latasha Harlins?’ Well, in the film, we don’t really talk about Rodney King. The riots are just the backdrop. It’s happening in the background. It creates the social situation for this type of story to take place but I was definitely very conscious of that case and how it pertained to my film. That particular tiny scene was how I could address it without [directly] addressing it.”
Baker is a phenomenal performer it’s hard to imagine the film without her in it. In his first draft, Kamila was Kamal, but once in the rewriting stage, Chon started to question the structure of the narrative and the creative choices he made and was making.
“There’s a lot of testosterone in the film. There’s a bunch of dudes fighting. I always felt like it’d be a nice dynamic to have the kid they’re all worried about be a girl. It brings a sensitivity to the film that I discovered in the rewrite. It was conscious and I’m glad that I did it and if we’re going to represent underrepresented demographics in the media, why not? Why not create a role for a resilient, strong, African-America girl.”
And we talked about the end. With violence as the backdrop and swirling around so many of the characters, it’s not hard to take the step towards a violent end. So why? Why this end and in this way? So I asked Chon.
“There is a sort of similarity in at least Korean. I can’t speak for all Asians, but for Koreans and also in the black culture [where] we’re both taught to be men. Even my dad–who’s in the film–told me when I was young, he said, ‘You only cry three times in your life: when you’re born and when each of your parents die.’ That’s crazy, you know? We’re taught that.”
“We’re taught to be strong and survive and take care of the family and these are the principles in both cultures that we’re taught. If you watch the film and you really analyze it, Eli and Keith are the same guy. They both have younger siblings that they’re trying to take care of. They’re both trying to make ends meet. They’re both orphaned by their parents. They have the same pain yet they can’t connect with each other because of their masculinity and their pride, and it’s representative of that time too.”
“I feel like people nowadays can be a little more open but not in 1992. It was sort of my way of expressing the dynamic back then that I know all too well. There’s no way you can stay “hard” when the person you love the most on both sides gets hurt. So it’s almost like that needed to happen for everyone to just shut the fuck up and open their eyes. The decision for her [Kamila] to die…nobody learns anything if there’s a happy ending. Something really bad needs to happen a lot of the time for people to learn something and feel something.”
I tell him that it feels very reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s not until their deaths that the families realize violent cycle they’ve been caught in with the two teens caught in the middle.
“Wow. I can’t believe you picked up on that,” Chon said excitedly, “Yeah, there is this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ element that was very consciously put in there, but you’re the only person who picked up on that.”
My reaction to that could be better explained in this gif:
I can’t end this without addressing the elephant in the room. GOOK is a derogatory term used against East and South Asians. It was first used in that way during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and I first learned about the word when it’s definition appeared at the beginning of the film. It’s original meaning, however, is “country” in Korean, and Eli gives this particular definition to Kamila over the racial slur.
“Eli has a choice to perpetuate the cycle of hate or he could choose to break that cycle and tell her the literal meaning,” Chon replied. “It’s a conscious decision that I think is really important in the film.”
As a black woman, I know how important these inter-community discussions are important to have, and while Chon may choose to use the word as an opportunity to educate, others in the community will disagree. I will say that I did leave the film feeling like I learned something, and I believe many others will too.