Talk about breaking Asian American stereotypes in cinema! Justin Chon, writer, director and main actor of “Gook” brings to you the movie that many of us Asian Americans have been waiting for. He does what I’ve always wanted to do as an artist; he screams “Hey, your life is shitty, but so is mine. Quit pretending that I don’t exist.”
You can’t talk about race and racism in America without examining the plight of the black community, but what often gets left out of the conversation is how the predicament of one community unfolds in relation to another. Asians are mostly regarded as model minorities, stereotyped to be smart, wealthy, docile, submissive, obedient and uncomplaining to a fault. Not so Chon’s main characters Eli, Daniel, or Mr Kim, the Korean liquor store owner across the street. They have chased the American dream, only to discover that living it means they are barely surviving to make ends meet. This type of portrayal is so rare in mainstream media, that I feel personal gratitude to Chon for opening the movie doors and giving us as an ethnic group the permission to be flawed. The movie’s mere existence lets us know that there isn’t a blanket group identity for Asians, but that our stories are as varied as anyone else’s.
Our people are prone to feeling inadequate for not living up to the squeaky clean images of academic excellence or corporate success that are expected of us. With “Gook”, Chon speaks up. He forces Americans not to avert their eyes and dismiss, ignore or laugh off Asian Americans that do not fit the mold.
The movie is a metaphor for the LA riots and for race relations, and suggests what sort of sacrifices it might take in order to heal across all borders. We do get a whiff of the violent resentment between Korean Americans and African Americans that seethed during those six fateful days, but Chon stays away from historical lessons or political lectures. Instead, he opts for a slice-of-life approach. It’s a simple, centralized story mostly taking place at Eli’s shoe store. The tale’s tapestry is weaved so tightly with rich colors and unique textures, that we barely notice we are in a black and white film. These people’s lives clearly suck, but they manage to find moments of light, love and laughter, making the emotional outbursts all the more effective. Their anguish is real, causing the characters to articulate those frustrations by uttering “fuck” at least 300 times during the course of the 94 minutes. But it isn’t the profanity laced dialogue that helps you understand the torment of South Central LA in the 90’s. Chon leads the audience on an emotional roller coaster with ease and comfort. He is an excellent actor and actors’ director who guids Simone Baker, David So, and the rest of the cast through the nuanced, intricate, psychologically diverse landscapes of the people they portray. Double kudos to Simone Baker, really. She is a delight to watch. Comedian David So, too, gives a strong performance as the daydreaming, aloof older brother who has ambitions of becoming an R&B singer. Performances are above average in this film. We know in the first five minutes that we will be taken care of, that we will feel, laugh, and cry. Chon visually personifies the characters’ wants and needs with seemingly mundane props: sneakers, a demo tape, a vandalized car that won’t run. He is such a master character builder that we forgive the occasional plot tangents. In fact, they work in his favor, because they make the traditional three-act structure of the film feel less cookie cutter and more documentary truthful. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the final draft of the screenplay, realizing — to my surprise — that I mistook scripted dialogue for raw improvisation. Screenwriters are usually advised against repetitive words and phrasing on screen. The rule is that you don’t copy real life speech in order to craft movie dialogue. In “Gook”, however, the repetitive dialogue seemed (but really, what do I know?) closely aligned to the real life vernacular of the communities and of the times portrayed. It reads strange, almost horrendous on the page, but it makes total sense once the actors breathe life into the words and lace them with subtext between the lines.
The film starts off so intense, I was worried that there would be nowhere to go. I was wrong. Because the opening note is thunderous, the resulting climbing action is subtle, but Chon manages to raise the stakes inch by inch, culminating in a heart shattering finale scene before the conclusion of the film, during which actor Curtis Cook Jr. shines. At the end, we realize we’ve lived through a riot without having seen a single image akin to the ones that were fed to us by the news of that period.
This movie is unpretentious. It relies on no gimmicks. It cares little about epic shots or complicated plot twists. Instead, it is about raw, honest, and emotional human relationships.
This is A + storytelling.
Go watch it THIS WEEK before it gets pushed out of the theaters by tentpole movies.
Originally published at The Pen and Camera.