With the intentionally titled Gook, writer/director/actor Justin Chon crafts a vivid picture that slowly builds in intensity. Despite leading into the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the film doesn’t center on the unrest at all, instead using it as the backdrop for an intimate and deeply compelling story about the friendship between an African-American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) and Korean-American women’s shoe store owner Eli (Chon). The characters – particularly Eli – initially see-saw erratically between extremes with their behavior (the first act feels choppy as a result), but Chon patiently peels away their layers to reveal their complexity, and from that answers any questions the story raises. While apolitical, the film confidently navigates through a rich symbolic and thematic landscape, exploring keenly felt motifs like displacement, inter-generational conflict, and masculinity. Baker’s magnetic performance showcases a tremendous maturity, and Chon often lets his expressive face and body language speak for Eli. Also terrific are the other cast members, namely David So, Sang Chon, and Curtiss Cook, Jr., who command the screen with their dynamism. The decision to shoot in black and white results in some striking images, though the camera’s twitchy and zippy movements make the frame difficult to comprehend at times. An unflinching exercise in empathy, this film boasts incredible heart.
* Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films