Gook was an amazing film. An exceptional film. A film that brought tears to my eyes.
Okay, to be honest, I cry very easily to on screen tragedy. But that means it was done well.
Spoilers ahead, so please be wary before reading forward.
Gook wonderfully expresses the Korean-American experience during the famous LA riots in the 1990’s. Some quick background information: footage of police beating Rodney King surfaced on the media and the ensuing trial became famous. When the judge acquitted the officer, the entire city went to shit. People rioted, breaking down stores and burning buildings down. Police built a blockade around the “nicer” neighborhoods (e.g. Beverly Hills) and let the rest of the city burn. One of the biggest groups to be affected by the riots were Korean-Americans, whose businesses were targeted, looted, and burned.
Justin Chon, through his own artistic lens, decides to let the viewer in on the experience of a demographic of people whose story is not told. His film exhibits the themes of racism, poor economic foundations, multi-racial family dynamic, love, and the American Dream. Chon chooses to show the entire film in black and white. In a directors Q and A after the screening, Chon explained that his artistic choice was driven by the need to not portray people as colors (although, as he pointed out, black and white are colors). Instead, he wanted the focus of the audience to be on the characters. What’s even more impressive, that I noticed, was the attention given to light. The time where everything was filmed, the angle of light from different overhead lighting, and the integration of props into the film so seamlessly. The black and white threw me off at first, but it quickly grew into a positive staple of the film.
The characters were also so rich and three dimensional. The only love aspect of the film was familial love (apart from an awkward scene between Eli and Kamillas sister). Chon was not afraid of showing his characters feel pain, get angry, laugh erratically, and dance like no one was watching. He wasn’t afraid to exploit the backstory without making it too overpowering. Even David So, a novice to acting, pulled his weight in the film. Without a doubt, however, the crown must be given to Simone Baker who played Kamilla. Such a rich character could only have been justice by an actress of Baker’s caliber.
Another impressive feat by Chon was the movies choice of perspective. Shaky cam aside, the lens through which we physically saw the movie felt like another person. Someone who hesitantly interacted with the ongoing scenes. We rarely got overhead shots, and were instead always thrown into the midst of drama. The viewer felt like a separate character, forced to see what the characters saw.
One problem, however, I feel that Chon may have felt for is the portrayal of Keith as an aggressive black male. There were moments where Keith’s vulnerability showed itself: when he spoke about his mom and when his sister died. However, more scenes needed to be done to flesh out the character more. Unfortunately, it felt as if though Keith may have fell into a caricature.
But that issue doesn’t take away the gravitas of the film. The weight of the experiences of these two Korean-Americans brothers in an equally marginalized community puts into perspective stories we were never told. It puts into perspective the immigrant experience and it broke me down into a million pieces.
There’s a line in the movie where Eli is yelling at the owner of a nearby store, Mr. Kim. He tells Mr. Kim that he speaks English because “this is America,” even though he can speak Korean. I remember when I said that to my own parents, albeit not so harshly. It was a moment of rough introspection, where we deny our own culture because we want to fit in so badly. Where the people around us who brought us to this country feel as if though we are abandoning our culture.
In so many scenes do the viewer see just how fractured the immigrant life is. How they sacrifice so much to give a better life to their kids. Chon does a brilliant job illustrating everything painful about being an immigrant, and I look forward to seeing more of his work. His movie gives confidence to all those creators who feel as if though their story is not worth telling.