Justin Chon’s debut feature opens with a scene of racially charged violence: Eli (Chon), a Korean American, is unloading shoes from the back of a truck when a Latino gang jumps him. Framed in slow motion, the beating is brutal and accompanied by racist taunts. But once it’s over and the gang has left, a bloodied Eli picks himself up, dusts himself off, and drives away with a lit cigarette in his mouth. What we’ve just witnessed is horrific, but the impression we get is that for him, it’s just another day in Paramount, a neighborhood adjacent to South Central Los Angeles.
That initial scene sets the tone for much of what follows for Eli and his brother, Daniel (David So), who run a struggling shoe store during the early 1990s. (The use of black-and-white cinematography lends Gook a timeless quality.) There’s tension between the Koreans, who are a minority in the neighborhood, and the African Americans and Latinos who make up the majority. For the most part, it appears in the form of distrust—at one point, when Daniel rings up a sale and includes the sales tax, the customer responds, “You people are always trying to rip us off.” Meanwhile, the brothers’ own relationship is not the best, with Eli constantly criticizing Daniel for his indifferent attitude.
The only ray of sunshine is Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African American girl who regularly visits the store. Kamilla doesn’t have much of a family life: her sister, Regina (Omono Okojie), and brother, Keith (a volcanic Curtiss Cook Jr.), seem too overburdened or distracted to pay her much notice. She’s content with whatever attention she receives from Eli and Daniel, and while they tell her not to come around, her persistence wears them down.
From her very first appearance, in which she’s dancing in front of a raging inferno, Kamilla comes across as a wild card in an otherwise predictable environment of racial animosity. When she’s at the store, Chon occasionally switches to fantasy sequences from her point of view, which are amusing as they contrast sharply from reality. Kamilla imagines her and the brothers charming the black customers, who in turn, are gracious and friendly. She represents the hope of two different communities getting along, and one of the most heart-warming scenes involves her and Eli going to a car wash to try and erase racist graffiti from his vehicle. (Notably, the spray-painted epithet “gook” does not wash off.)
The criminal trial of the LAPD officers who nearly beat Rodney King to death looms large throughout, and the main characters sense trouble approaching. Unfortunately, on the same day as the acquittal verdict, which in real-life ignited the 1992 riots that left South Central devastated, Eli finds himself marooned at the store while Daniel is coerced into venturing into the areas where mass looting is taking place.
The film is at times an unflinching look at racial disharmony—and one centered entirely on nonwhite protagonists for a change. Chon, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids depicting anybody as a one-dimensional monster (the exception being a few hoodlums with extremely limited screen time). That includes Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), who runs a liquor store located and at one point pulls a gun on Kamilla during a heated exchange. (The scene seems inspired by a real-life incident in which Latasha Harlin, a young black teenager, was shot to death by a Korean shopkeeper.) Despite such an outrageous and cowardly act, he eventually gets a chance to explain himself, which doesn’t excuse what he did, but it allows him to come across as slightly more sympathetic.
There is similar depth given to Keith, the closest to a main antagonist here, but even in his case, what informs his anger is more than just irrational fears of the other. As it turns out, a connection existed between his family’s mother and Eli and Daniel’s father. Once all the secrets are laid bare, the revelations recast Keith’s ill will in a new, understandable light. Unfortunately, much like the Los Angeles residents who took to attacking passersby and burning down storefronts, he lets his passions overwhelm him to tragic effect.
Right up to its 11th hour, the film offers hope that we can all transcend our worse impulses before delivering an absolute gut punch of an ending, yet one that rings true, given the racially divisive times in which we currently live. Anyone paying attention to the news knows we still have much work to do before we can all truly get along, and that makes Gook essential viewing.