‘Gook’ Review: A New and Unexpected Perspective of the Rodney King Riots

When I first heard about Gook from a close friend of mine, I was quite honestly worried about it. I learned of its praise from Sundance 2017, and it even won the “Best of Next!” award for director Justin Chon, but the idea of a story centering the Rodney King Riots from an Asian-American perspective can go in very wrong directions, especially if the pain is centered on anyone other than Black communities. Luckily, Justin Chon remains conscious in his efforts to create a vintage black-and-white drawback to the 90’s and capture the raw intensity of racial relations at the time, and he does so with respect.

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Gook follows Korean brothers Eli and Daniel, played by director Justin Chon himself and David So respectively, as they struggle to run their family shoe store. Eli just wants to hold up his family’s legacy and his character displays a common issue for children of immigrants, which is to honor the family business. Daniel has his own dreams of being an R&B singer, but due to family obligations he hardly has the time to chase his dreams. This builds issues between the two as their priorities are not lined up. The shining star of the film and true lead role, Kamila (played by newcomer Simone Baker), helps the two brothers run their shop as she spends her time with the two brothers, rather than go to class or hang out with other kids her age. She is the star of the film and is sure to capture hearts with her adorable carefree nature. I look forward to what her career holds, I think there’s a promising one in her and she did great for her first time in a lead role. This trio is a close, tight relationship, and largely remains the heart of the film, as their unique love among another drives the emotion. As tensions build in their community over the fate of the Rodney King trials, we begin to learn about what this trio relationship fulfills for each other. Justin handles bending these characters to their emotions quite well and justifies actions internally. No one acts without reason, and instead with developed emotional needs. I think this particularly runs true for Curtis Cook Jr.’s Keith, who plays Kamila’s older brother. His role in the film is not as large as the others, but he holds a heart wrenching scene in the third act. At first he may seem like an antagonist of the film, but let the film play out and consider what he’s going through internally himself.

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This is Justin Chon’s second directorial feature, and although I can’t speak for the other film he’s directed this one seems to be a much more serious and dramatic effort. Justin Chon grew up during the Rodney King riots and his family’s own business was attacked during the riots. When I spoke to Justin Chon personally, he told me the ultimate deciding factor for creating this film was he wanted to learn to tell his story before learning to tell anyone else’s story, and I believe he succeeds with both in Gook. I’m happy to say Chon remains unbiased in displaying the scope of racial tensions in Paramount during the times. Anti-blackness from Asian-Americans holds a presence in the film, as well as vice versa. This is not to say there’s no love shared beyond the different cultures as well. The reality is that although this may not always be the prettiest picture to see, this was the state of the area during the times and what Justin experienced in his very own lifetime. The court trials surrounding the Rodney King incident are seen throughout the film in telecasts and heard on the radio as the film progresses. The trial acts as a slow burning time-bomb waiting for the racial tensions to blow as we all know the coming court decision. In the meanwhile, we are filled in with tiny bits of information explaining the state of the two families, with their own explosive climax awaiting them at about the same speed. We bare witness to both a personal and public climax in community relations throughout the duration of the third act.

In terms of tone and style, many have compared the feature to a Kevin Smith style or Spike Lee. This goes beyond the black-and-white coloring of the film, but also in humor and raw intensity. The film is not without its own flaws, sometimes the camera placement is awkward, but this as independent as indie films come and you can feel Justin’s burning passion. This makes for an ambitious endeavor from Justin and I look forward to see what the future holds for his career. The third act is quite gripping and really begins to bend towards a more emotional end. It displays the cruel reality that life can be beautiful, but can also bring us so much pain, and this is extended through our close relationships. I also believe that Justin Chon captures the struggling life of minorities in areas similar to Paramount in very accurate ways. Please support this film, as we need to support more films like Gook. Especially with Hollywood’s current treatment of Asian representation.

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Eli (Justin Chon) and Kamila (Simone Baker)

Gook is in select theaters now for these locations:

Theatrical Release Dates
Friday, August 18th , 2017
In Los Angeles, CA at the Arclight Hollywood and Regal LA LIVE Stadium

Friday, August 25, 2017
In New York, NY at the Regal Union Square 14
In Anaheim, CA at the Edwards Anaheim Hills 14
In Berkeley, CA at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas
In San Francisco, CA at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission
In San Diego, CA at the Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium 18 IMAX & RPX
In Washington DC at the Regal Majestic 20 & IMAX
In Atlanta, GA at the Regal Atlantic Station  Stadium 16 & IMAX
In Honolulu, HI at the Regal Theaters Dole Cannery Stadium 18 & IMAX
In Las Vegas, NV at the Regal Village Square Stadium 18
In Portland, OR at the Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10
In Houston, TX at the Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24 & RPX
In Seattle, WA at the Regal Meridian 16
In Irvine, CA at the Edwards University Town Center 6

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