Gook finds no meaning in Rodney King riots

D+ Inner-city drama
Written & directed by Justin Chon

Everything about Gook tells you that this is an important film. It deals with racial conflict between Americans of African and Korean decent. It’s set in one of those poor, dangerous Los Angeles neighborhoods that white people try to avoid. It’s set in 1992, on the day and night of the Rodney King riots. It’s even shot in black and white.

But it provides very little insight into the Korean community and none whatsoever into the African-American one. The characters are never well defined, and act only to keep the story going. The Rodney King connection is only a gimmick; an excuse for people to riot and steal things, and a way to keep the police too busy to care about what’s happening at the rundown shoe store which is Gook‘s major setting.

Eli (played by writer/director Justin Chon) owns the store, which he inherited from his father. He’s not particularly good at selling shoes, but he’s better than his friend and only employee, Daniel (David So). Daniel curses out one would-be customer and gives a 70-percent discount to three attractive young women who flirt with him. Both Eli and Daniel are ethnically Korean. Their customers, like almost everyone nearby, are black.

The store has a sort of mascot in Kamila (Simone Baker), a 12-year-old girl from the neighborhood. She’s lively, charming, and adorable. She plays hooky from school and spends her time at the shoe store. On one hand, Kamila provides the film with one character you can really care about. On the other hand, an adorable, orphaned, 12-year-old girl with a 500-watt smile provides a cheap way to grab an audience. In the second half, the movie milks everything it can to make you worry about Kamila.

Every so often, Eli, Daniel, and Kamila break into song and dance. No, Gook isn’t a musical. It’s just that the characters like to sing and dance, even if they’re not particularly good at it.

African-American women, according to the film’s point of view, can be decent people. But the black men in this film are all terrifying thugs. They view the Rodney King verdict as an excuse to get “free stuff.” Kamila’s older brother (Curtiss Cook Jr.) occasionally behaves like a loving father figure, but when the plot requires it, he becomes violently dangerous. He too, is just another thug.

There’s one Asian-American stereotype: The old man shopkeeper who despises his customers (Sang Chon). But he gets to espouse some wisdom near the end.

I liked the widescreen black and white photography, which emphasizes the dull, dirty surroundings.

A great film could be made about this subject. But Gook isn’t it.