Gook movie review
Updated: May 11, 2022
Korean American film director Justin Chon’s 2017 film Gook flew under my radar until it popped up on the Facebook page “subtle korean traits”. At the time, I was only acquainted with what Korean Americans remember as Saigu. I had not, however, understood how much the events of Saigu had heightened inter-minority racism. The stunning black-and-white filmography introduced me to a Pandora’s box that I wish I had opened sooner.
Gook tells the tale of two Korean American brothers, Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So). They maintain their late father’s shoe store in Paramount, a predominately African American community in California. They form a friendship with a black 11-year-old girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker). Despite their experiences with racism — particularly between Black Americans and Asian Americans — the three form a family-like bond. In an hour and a half, Chon captures the complex inter-minority racial tensions that couldn’t be ignored after Saigu.
Saigu, in this context, translates to “four two three,” a reference to the L.A. riots that began on April 23, 1992. Four officers of the L.A. Police Department (LAPD) were acquitted for using excessive force in the beating of the unarmed black man Rodney King. Over the six days following the verdict, the ensuing uprising disproportionately affected Koreatown. This further exacerbated racial tensions and reshaped the Korean American identity.
Gook was not intended to be educational, so I would recommend supplementing this movie with further reading. For example, the riots were not solely in response to the verdict of the Rodney King trial. One critical portion that the movie did not explicitly mention was the murder of Latasha Harlins, which played a part in Koreatown being the target of the riot. In 1991, Korean shop owner Soonja Du fatally shot Harlins, a black 15-year-old. Du could have faced up to 16 years in prison. Instead, she was sentenced to a mere five years on probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. The week before the riots, the California Court of Appeals upheld the sentencing decision, 3-0. The murder and lack of justice further contributed to the preexisting racial tensions, yet it was not given the same attention as the Rodney King trial.
With that said, Chon did not omit Harlins altogether. In the film, Kamilla faces discrimination from Mr. Kim, the owner of a nearby liquor store. This racial tension escalates to Mr. Kim pointing a gun at Kamilla, clearly referencing Harlins’ murder. Kamilla’s brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), also holds resentment towards Asian Americans after the family lost their mother in a Korean-owned store, which he shouts at Kamilla in one scene. However, these instances serve more as a subplot and a backstory, respectively, rather than a crucial moment between these two minority groups. I felt that this was a notable disservice to the film, making the racial conflict possibly appear more one-sided than it actually is.
Overall, Gook was a moving film that illustrated the complexity of interminority racism and its impacts on individuals. The film crushes the traditional “model minority” portrayal of Asian Americans. It unveils the reality of the “American Dream” that attracted many of our parents to start a new life in a new country. Kamilla’s unlikely connection with Eli and Daniel demonstrates the beauty of human connection and the need to embrace, not fear, our differences.