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The Movie That Perfectly Captures My Experience as an Asian-American

‘Gook’ looks at the L.A. riots from the perspectives of two Korean kids

There’s a beautiful moment about 30 minutes into the film Gook, when Kamilla, a 11-year-old African-American girl, and Eli, the Korean owner of a struggling shoe store, talk about the graffiti someone has scribbled all over the panels of Eli’s beat-up car. The trunk reads “puto.” There’s a hand-drawn dick-and-balls on the roof. And spelled out in choppy bubble letters on the hood is the film’s namesake: “Gook.”

“Yo, what does that even mean?” Kamilla asks.

“What? Oh, gook? Uh, in Korean, ‘gook’ just means country,” Eli tells her. “Han-gook is Korean. Yung-gook is England.”

“What about America?” Kamilla says.

“Ah. That’s my favorite one. Me-gook,” Eli says gently, pointing to himself, before elaborating that in Korean, the phrase translates to “beautiful country.”

There are dozens of films and documentaries about the L.A. riots, but none have explored the racial tension with the charm and intimacy of Gook, which is currently available on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon and other streaming platforms. It’s a sad but hilarious film that follows two Korean-American brothers, Eli and Daniel, and their stubborn, whip-smart young friend Kamilla, as they battle personal attacks amid the unrest unfolding following the verdict of the Rodney King trial.

Made for less than a million dollars and distributed via a limited summer theatrical run, Gook wasn’t a film many people saw, pulling in just $250,000 at the box office. What intrigued me, though, was that Gook takes on the riots from the perspective of young Korean-Americans, a rare approach and a relatable one for me — a late-20s Korean-American and the kid of immigrant parents. It’s the second full-length movie from 36-year-old Justin Chon, who directed the movie, wrote the screenplay and portrays the lean and weary Eli. It’s a fairly simple tale of how two families came together and then drifted apart, but the themes leave a lot of questions about prejudice and social bonds.

Gook grapples with racism in a spectrum of scenes and conversations, with Eli catching a beating from Latino gangbangers, getting mean-mugged by black guys and even getting into a noisy verbal spat with Mr. Kim, an older Korean man who owns a liquor store across from Eli and Daniel’s shoe shop in a dusty corner of Paramount, a suburb just east of Compton.

None of these scenes, however, are meant to be preachy. They’re more there to assert that Eli and Daniel still come off like “others” in the neighborhood, regardless of how integrated they are (a running gag is Daniel’s aspiration to be an R&B singer). That judgment of “otherness” also comes from the perspective of Mr. Kim, who stubbornly speaks Korean and seems perplexed by the brothers despite their shared ethnicity — a weird cultural gap that real-life Asian-American kids have navigated for generations.

“We’re still the model minority and used as a wedge on some issues and politics in America,” Chon tells me over the phone. “There’s still this filial piety and obedience thing from our parents, too.”

His parents, like mine, chose to move to the U.S. from South Korea — his in the 1970s, mine in the early 1980s. My parents in particular were driven by the unshakable belief that I’d have a better life in America than the homeland. Nonetheless, in that first year here, they had to hole up in a small studio apartment in South L.A. while working menial jobs. The first gig my dad, an architect and interior designer by trade, ever took was as a gas station attendant in Compton, where the Persian owner passed him a Beretta handgun on his first day along with a firm clap on the back.

I always assumed that things were tough for him as a short, slender Korean man in the middle of a largely black neighborhood — whether it was as a gas station attendant or as he continued to run other businesses (a laundromat, a liquor store, a movie theater) in some of L.A.’s more maligned districts. But he doesn’t remember it that way, even after experiencing thefts, harassment from gang members and gunfights with armed robbers. “No one ever made me feel like this bad stuff was happening because I was Korean,” he says. “People joked about it to me. But racism? I don’t think so.”

What he does remember, however, is a feeling of tribalism — especially feeling like Korean shopkeepers formed their own community, culture and a collective suspicion of certain kinds of customers, often involving racial stereotypes.

Early in Gook, Mr. Kim (portrayed by Chon’s father, Sang, a former actor) brandishes his handgun after arguing with Kamilla (the wonderful newcomer Simone Baker) about whether or not she’s stealing, an obvious nod to the 1991 killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean woman in a convenience store. The incident leads to a shouting match between Mr. Kim and Eli and Daniel, who are outraged when they find out. The inconvenient truth, of course, is that Kamilla did steal, as she’s done before.

“My parents didn’t act racist, thank God, but I’ve heard some real nasty shit from other Korean parents about racial stereotypes,” Chon notes. “All of us being part of a minority community didn’t stop the suspicion.”

The film tries hard to humanize each plot point with motives. In a quiet moment much later in the film, Mr. Kim sits with Eli and reveals that he once partnered with Eli’s father to find, buy and run the shoe store not long after they moved to America. The optimism faded the first time a customer ran off with a brand-new pair of New Balances, he explains. “I just knelt there dumbfounded,” Mr. Kim says in Korean. “After that, I saw all the customers as crooks.”

That inability to forgive and forget thrums hardest in Keith, Kamilla’s older brother, and for much of the film, an antagonist to Eli and Daniel, though it’s unclear why until the third-act reveal. During one scene, the seemingly tough Keith (played by an excellent Curtiss Cook Jr.) starts to shed tears while admonishing Kamilla after he finds her brand-new Jordans, a gift from Eli. “You been down there with those gooks, huh? Yo, what the fuck did I tell you about goin’ down there? They’re using you,” Keith says, swelling with anger.

Their older sister Regina shoos Kamilla away from Keith, who keeps talking anyway. “They better than me?” he asks, seething. “They ain’t never come here to even say sorry, nothin’. And they over there prospering?”

I don’t want to give away why the brothers would apologize. Gook’s thematic use of memory — and how powerful it is at dividing people — is one of its best traits. Twenty-five years have passed since L.A. erupted like it never did before (or since), with upwards of $1 billion in damage and 63 deaths. A number of my “uncles” and “aunts” lost their life’s work in the riots, which flattened much of Koreatown into a scraggly maze of charred strip malls. In real-life Paramount, Chon’s father arrived at his shoe warehouse to find it had been looted, though the building remained.

My own parents were lucky enough to not be caught in the center of the conflict, but they watched with an uneasy mix of horror and awe on their grainy 32-inch TV a hundred miles away in Delano, in the dusty farmland of Central California. They’d decided to move a year earlier, partly inspired by my mom’s wish to live in a more peaceful city and partly driven by the near-bankruptcy they weathered after business plummeted at their movie theater.

Phone calls eventually trickled in, but nobody spoke about why so many from the black community were “lashing out,” as my dad puts it. They mostly spoke of the damage the assailants had left behind, bitter emotions rising.

The irony is that the whole reason why Korean immigrants ended up running small businesses in black neighborhoods was because bigger corporate brands refused to open up there. Keith’s bitter remarks about Eli and Daniel “prospering” struck a chord with me because it’s not about whether the duo are well-off (they’re in debt), but the privilege Keith percives them holding, especially after Kamilla angrily blurts out that the brothers are more like family than her (oft-preoccupied) older brother.

“The weird thing is, this isn’t a discussion passed onto generations as any sort of lesson,” Chon says of Korean immigrants who lived through, or even fought, the riots. “Life in America [for them] is a topic of money as opposed to social issues. There’s not much talk about how the system may be unfair to them racially. They just put their heads down.”

Admittedly, Chon never really intended to discuss these social issues either when he set out as a filmmaker. His first feature-length production was Man Up, a stoner comedy that didn’t get much traction or favorable reviews. And as an actor, his most visible role to date came in the Twilight series, where he played a friend to Kristen Stewart’s Bella.

As for Gook, he mostly wanted to tell a story that felt authentic and that he had full control over. And so, he cobbled together money from private investors who didn’t need final say and raised additional financing from a Kickstarter campaign that brought in $56,000. He wasn’t sure what distribution would look like, given that the film is “in black and white, with no famous people — just people of color, in fact.” Winning the Next Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, however, caught the attention of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who saw to getting it in theaters.

Chon spent much of the summer shooting roles on ABC’s upcoming show Deception and an indie drama, Taipei, an adaptation of Tao Lin’s existential novel. But now that those projects have ended, he’s devoting more attention to his next feature. It’s a cross-country film, he says, with two people adopted from Korea who are deported nearly four decades later because of improper paperwork. “I know that I catered to my strengths with Gook. I want to push myself to improve the craft and see what I can do this time,” he says.

“I also don’t think Asian-American movies should be these fucking low-budget, ragtag films. The fix is we need to support it — support all of it — because we don’t have a marketplace yet.”

It’s interesting, though. While Gook is definitely an Asian-American film, it’s also a black film. But most of all, it’s an American film — one, in fact, that’s perfectly suited for 2017.