Exploding with fire and unyielding fury, Gook signals a writer-director who’s coming into his creative prime. Although Justin Chon initially set out to tell the LA riots from a Korean-American perspective, his work embraces a refreshingly broader canvas.
Eli (Justin Chon) is a Korean American who owns a shoe store with his younger (and more irresponsible) sibling Daniel (singer/comedian David So) in Paramount, Ca. Struggling to make ends meet, Eli is determined to keep his late father’s store up and running, and helping him on his quest is an 11-year-old named Kamilla (scene stealer Simone Baker) who ditches school to help him sell his sneaks.
This trio form an extended family that lives beyond the racist climate of the neighborhood, but with the LA riots knocking on their front door, their lives may be headed in a much darker direction. Curtiss Cook Jr., co-stars Kamilla’s quick trigger brother Keith and Sang Chon (Justin’s dad) is the nearby grocery store owner Mr. Kim.
With the film’s moniker and weighty subject matter, one may assume that Gook would travel down a heavy handed and preachy road, making it a vanity project for a filmmaker who’s trying to find his voice (or climb the industry ladder). Though the film is heavily (and rightfully) compared to director Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, the picture also has the freewheeling yet verité feel of She’s Gotta Have It.
Preconceptions are part of our fabric, but one of the many beauties behind cinematic treasures is that most of the time they exceed our own prejudice and cynicism. Does Chon channel the anger and energy behind Lee’s early work and mix it into his own creative gumbo? Perhaps. But that’s just part of the stew.
As a wide-eyed girl in search of the truest of friends, Baker knocks her role out of the park as she handles the film’s ever shifting tones (comedic, heartbreaking, dramatic) with aplomb (I’m giving partial credit to the sheer exuberance and true wisdom of youth).
Chon and So are veterans, and both are convincing as bickering yet bonded brothers (So actually gets a few minutes to display his vocal skills, and he definitely has a set of pipes). Along with Baker, the true surprise is Chon’s dad, who gives a surprisingly layered performance as one of the film’s seeming antagonists.
Actually antagonists may not be the right word, as Chon infuses Gook with a well rounded look from both sides of the equation. Even if Keith should be jailed for his actions, Chon refuses to vilify the character, and by exploring this troubled youth’s inner workings, the narrative ends up being more than a singular experience.
Shot in black and white, the film is also beautifully shot by Ante Cheng. Fluid camerawork is employed in various shots and certain compositions will absolutely stick in my head for years to come (Gook is right up there when it comes to rooftop and bubble car war scenes).
With first rate DP work and an engaged ensemble, the movie’s actual crowing achievement lies in Chon’s ability in mastering the story’s more subtle moments. One sequence, which deals with Eli’s uneasy interaction with Kamilla’s older sister (Omono Okojie), would have been slathered with saccharine dialogue from a lesser storyteller. Instead, Chon understands that some things are better left unsaid.
When there is dialogue, the story still exists on a very realistic and engaging plane (the film’s neorealistic flair perfectly blends with some of the picture’s more surreal moments). Whether Eli is having a heart to heart conversation with the grocery store owner or he’s bonding with Kamilla, Chon pulls us in without turning his tale into a manipulative mess.
Even amidst the aforementioned fire and fury (and don’t worry, this movie packs a punch) Gook’s ultimate power rests in its unabashed search for truth and a little bit of life amidst the madness.
***For more info on Gook, check out its official Facebook Page.
Theaters that are showing Gook (as of 8/25/17):
1, New York, NY at the Regal Union Square 14
2. Anaheim, CA at the Edwards Anaheim Hills 14
3. Berkeley, CA at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas
4. San Francisco, CA at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission
5. San Diego, CA at the Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium 18 IMAX & RPX5
7. Washington DC at the Regal Majestic 20 & IMAX
8 Atlanta, GA at the Regal Atlantic Station Stadium 16 & IMAX
9. Honolulu, HI at the Regal Theaters Dole Cannery Stadium 18 & IMAX
10. Las Vegas, NV at the Regal Village Square Stadium 18
11. Portland, OR at the Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10
12. Houston, TX at the Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24 & RPX
13. Seattle, WA at the Regal Meridian 16
14. Irvine, CA at the Edwards University Town Center 6
Gook CinemAddicts Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
**I’ll be discussing Gook in the September episode of CinemAddicts. Take a listen to August’s show below: