Almost certainly the most confrontational film about the Asian-American experience since “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Justin Chon’s “Gook” is about as subtle as a trash can smashing through a pizzeria window, but this isn’t a story for subtle times. Set on April 29, 1992 — the first night of the Los Angeles Riots — it’s not a story about subtle times, either. On the contrary, this messy but lived-in drama is intended for a climate that’s tilted towards hatred and erasure, an environment in which people are forced to scream their voices hoarse just to remind the world of their basic humanity. You don’t call a movie “Gook” because you feel heard.
A frequently angry call to action that’s shot in spare black-and-white (all the better to evoke the scrappy kind of indies that were arriving on the scene back in the “Clerks” era), “Gook” hinges on two normal Korean-American guys. Chon, who broke through with a part in the “Twilight” saga before moving behind the camera to direct the generic 2015 rom-com “Man Up,” plays Eli, a bonafide Los Angeleno from his easy swagger to his Clippers jersey. From the moment we meet him, it’s clear that Eli is a hustler with a good head on his shoulders; he’s not a particularly strong businessman, but his late father didn’t leave him with a particularly strong business to run when he was killed on the job.
Bequeathed to Eli and his goofy brother Daniel (YouTube star David So), the decrepit shoe store is the only thing open on a block that looks borderline post-apocalyptic — it ain’t much, but it’s the only real stake that this immigrant family has in this country. If not for the winsome, wide-eyed 11-year-old kid who hangs around the shop and volunteers her help, the place probably would have already shuttered its doors. Kamille (Simone Baker) is a firecracker, too full of life to care that it gets much better. When customers ask why the little black girl isn’t at school, Eli says that she’s his sister, and there’s a hint of sincerity to how he says that; they may not be related by blood, but the tenuous bond between their families predates them both. This is a film that simmers (and eventually erupts) with violence between different minority groups, but “Gook” never fails to highlight the tragedy of that conflict, never fails to emphasize how these conflicts are the symptoms of a shared oppression.
Eli, Daniel, and Kamille are a highly watchable trio of oddballs, even if the movie doesn’t always know what to do with them. They mind their own business for the most part, too busy trying to get by or avoid getting beat down to pay much attention to the verdict of the Rodney King trial that hums out of every TV set like white noise. Soft and quick to smile, Daniel is the family dreamer; he flirts with the customers and he aspires to be an R&B singer (So has the skills to do it, too). Eli shoulders enough anxiety for them both. Hanging with Kamille is the sole respite he gets from his responsibilities, and the scenes between them are alternately sweet and didactic. Alas, only the latter kind feel authentic. It’s Kamille who prompts Eli to explain that “gook” means “country” in Korean, and that “me-gook” means “American.” It’s Kamille who’s used to catalyze the movie’s explosive final moments. Chon wants to get his point across at any cost — and he does — but it’s hard to watch Kamille be reduced to a rhetoric device when the actress who plays her has so much more to offer.
Chon’s scattershot, semi-impressionistic plotting tends to make “Gook” feel like it’s ping-ponging between moments of truth and moments of grace (the film, which borrows so much from “Do the Right Thing,” is sorely missing Spike Lee’s ability to combine the two), but one character strikes the right balance. The aging, first-generation Korean immigrant who owns the bodega near Eli’s store eventually sits the protagonist down and explains his heart with a history lesson, but his screen presence alone conveys so much.
Played by Chon’s father, who brings a palpably corroded sense of self to the role, the old man sells food from behind the counter of a bullet-proof shield because one traumatic incident taught him to distrust everyone in the neighborhood. He gets the funniest scene in a movie that’s often a lot lighter than its title might suggest, but he also represents a sad isolationism that negates the promises of his adoptive nation. He can barely hear his customers on the other side of the plexiglass. So he stands there, alone and afraid and unsure how things ended up this way.
Raw and compelling from its poetic opening shot to its gut-punch finale, “Gook” doesn’t always find the best way to express itself, but it knows what needs to be said, and it knows that words can lose their meaning in a conversation where so many people are denied their own voice. Justin Chon isn’t afraid to shout. Subtlety is a luxury that he doesn’t have anymore.
“Gook” is now playing in Los Angeles. It opens in New York and other cities on August 25.