Justin Chon’s Sundance award-winning film, Gook, is set during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and looking back twenty-five years later, it is still extremely relevant. Gook is inspired by the experience of Chon’s family during the riots and is presented from a Korean American perspective, one which Chon felt was underrepresented and important to put forth.
On April 29, 1992, four officers who had been captured on video brutally beating Rodney King, an African American man, were acquitted. Following the shocking verdict, civil unrest erupted in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, a predominantly African American community. Over the course of five days, businesses were looted, buildings went up in flames, and violence was committed against people. Unrest was motivated by growing outrage over the police force’s brutality and racist practices in the community, and by other forms of racial and economic oppression. Tensions also existed between African Americans and Koreans, particularly Korean store owners in the South Central neighborhood.
The film centers around two Korean American brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So), who run a shoe store in South Central, L.A. Kamilla, a young African American girl, becomes friends with the brothers and spends time at the shoe store despite the opposition of her older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.). Throughout the film, Kamilla’s innocence and sincerity allow her to form interracial bonds between communities with strained relationships. Kamilla, played by emerging actress Simone Baker, expresses a hope for harmony and love to prevail.
Through intimate moments between characters, Gook captures the complexities of the time and explores tensions in relationships between friends, family, and neighbors. The film encourages us to think about the United States today and how we have and have not progressed. Following a screening of the film, Chon emphasized the need for social change and the importance of listening to one another.
Justin Chon’s film has the power to open up difficult and powerful dialogues. As the film portrays complex and relatable characters each struggling to survive, it contributes a necessary human side to events which many young people, including myself, have only read about. Gook is a profound film worth seeing and will be returning to Seattle in Regal Cinemas this August 2017.
While Chon was in town for the Seattle International Film Festival, I got a chance to sit down with him to learn more about the film.
Aya Bisbee: Could you talk a bit about your inspiration for making this film?
Justin Chon: I was eleven when the riots happened. My dad had a business in Paramount and we got looted the fourth day. It was something that we, my family, dealt with and it was an interesting time — interesting dynamic for me because we lived in the suburbs, but my dad would come in everyday because he wanted us, me and my sister, to go to good public schools. So it was kind of a weird time because nobody else was going through what I was going through, so I felt very alone during the event. But I think it helped me to be less sheltered and more well-rounded as a child because I tried not to take things for granted, and I knew how hard it was out there.
AB: The film was heavily inspired by your own family’s experience during the riots. Could you talk more about your experience? What was your childhood like? After the riots, how did your life and perspective change?
JC: Kids are resilient and I think I was the same. I just had a great time growing up and I had a good childhood. But I don’t think you can really process it the way an adult does. The thoughts that run through your mind aren’t the things that adults think about. It’s more like does this mean I have to move schools or does this mean I have to make new friends or what does this mean? But as a kid, it was eye-opening. And after the riots, going into my dad’s business, one time I found in his drawer there was a gun. But as a kid, I think it’s different from experiencing it and someone looking from the outside. They’re like “oh wow, that’s so traumatizing”. And for me, you just move on, you just keep moving. But then as an adult, you look at the event and you process it differently and you think about it very differently. I think that’s why I made the film.
AB: When did you begin to think you wanted to make this film?
JC: I had been bouncing the idea around for a few years and our producing partner kept pushing me to make it. But then ultimately, I heard that these other L.A. riots films were being made and I thought that was great, but I got ahold of some of the scripts and I didn’t feel like the Korean side of the story was accurately portrayed, or not just accurate, just like represented in a way that I thought was the way I saw it. It was out of necessity. I’m excited to see those films as well. I truly, deeply respect those filmmakers, but I think it’s just different perspectives on the event. I think it’s important that everybody — that there can be a Korean side to it, an African-American side to it, you know. It’s just being part of the conversation.
AB: Could you talk about how you developed the script and how it evolved over time?
JC: I wanted to center the film around this friendship between Eli and Kamilla. And I wanted it to be just as much an African-American film as it was a Korean-American film. I also wanted to show the intergenerational play between old-school Koreans and kind of like the second-generation Koreans. So it was just about finding a through line with those stories in mind.
AB: Unconventional families play a large part in the film. What is the significance of this concept for you? Why are these relationships something that was important for you to portray in your film?
JC: Because it’s just the way I see America. I think America is so diverse, in major cities at least — not so much everywhere. And I just wanted to represent what my outlook on how the United States is. And I just love stories about families, I love stories about friendship. There’s universal things that everyone can relate to and connect with. Making film for me is about making people have conversations afterwards. And people think it was an unorthodox pairing, but my answer to that is just take a look at this film and it’s not weird at all. It’s actually quite natural and those are the reasons I wanted to center around this unconventional family dynamic.
AB: What was it like to have your father in the film? Did that start conversations for you?
JC: My dad’s old school and he was very confused why I wanted to make a film about the riots because he just felt like it was a traumatic part of our history. He didn’t understand why you’d want to revisit that. But my dad was an actor in Korea. He acted from when he was ten to about twenty-five, so it was an opportunity for me to work on that level, as artists. And it was really cool to see how he approached the work. He’s very much an actor. He asked the right questions, and had concerns about the right things. That’s something that no one can take away from me, is some of the scenes that we shot in the film.
AB: In the process of making this film, how did you learn and grow? What do you take away from the process?
JC: I think for growth, it’s just a continuous thing. I don’t think you ever get there, so it’s just part of the journey in my artistic endeavors as a creator. It’s very empowering to know that I can make something outside of just being an actor because that’s my first love, acting. And you know, it’s just encouraging that I can make something from nothing, and make it be impactful, and say something, and contribute to the Asian-American narrative.
AB: What have the responses to the film been so far? What discussions has the film been sparking?
JC: We premiered at Sundance and it’s gotten a great response and we won the Audience Award. We also screened at my hometown festival, the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, and that’s always been sort of like home base for me. It was really well received and that was really encouraging as well. The conversations that it has started is like where are we now? It’s been 25 years. This is kind of a good milestone to see how we’ve progressed, but also to point out the things that we haven’t progressed in and talk about race and conflict that exists now. It’s just a good way to start all sorts of different conversations. And I hope that in the film, that’s what people take away, is that there’s a lot of different things to talk about. It’s not just racial conflict, it’s also intergenerational, it’s also police brutality, it’s also family dynamics, the way we sort of look at the diversity of the United States. I hope that people can find a lot of different things to talk about.
AB: The character of Kamilla, played by Simone Baker, in the film presents a sense of innocence and hope for interracial relationships and solidarity. Where do you see hope for solidarity and social change in the world we live in today? Can the arts (film, music, performing arts, etc.) be a platform for communities to come together, to dialogue, to heal?
JC: I think that’s the power of film is that it can mean different things to different people. In the bigger arena of art, in general, whether it be music or paintings or whatever, it’s supposed to reflect or say something that someone wants to say. Whatever it’s about, adolescence or dying or death, or whether it’s about romantic relationships, I think that’s the power of art. You can express in many different ways and it’s important. Because the first thing people do — used to do a long time ago is when they wanted to take control of a society, they’d burn all the books and destroy the paintings. If they want to demolish someone’s history, they destroy their art and I think there’s a reason. Because it’s powerful and it gives hope and if there’s any chance for hope, I think art can do that for people.
AB: Talk about your own transformation and our communities. What have you seen? Can you tell our readers what changes you have seen/experienced since the riots?
JC: I’m not exactly like a scholar or an academic. I think there’s people who can really talk about this stuff and I’ve been on panels with them and they have vast knowledge about like race relations. But I mean in terms of Black and Korean, the tension that existed back then no longer exists in these neighborhoods. It was a rough time because a lot of these Korean people came into these neighborhoods and made money because Ralph’s and bigger chains didn’t want to come into the hood. They didn’t know that they — there was no liaison really to tell them you need to assimilate, you need to be a part of the community, you can’t just make money and leave. But a lot of that has changed. I think in terms of police brutality it’s gotten worse. Our police force is just so militarized and the amount of force, the type of force that’s used. But it’s hard to say. I don’t know. I’ve never walked a mile in a police officer’s shoes, but from what I see, whatever we’re doing now, I don’t know if it’s working. It’s just — that’s why my movie exists is for people to talk about it. I don’t know what the answer is. I have no answers. It’s more for people to discuss and maybe the film reaches the right people to cause them to take action. I don’t think that’s my fight, to fight that fight. It’s more of like to start the conversation, but in terms of progression I feel like it’s progressed a lot in terms of accepting — at least people are talking about these things. When there’s whitewashing happening or when there’s hate crimes, like gay hate crimes, at least it’s on the news now. Before, it was like an afterthought. So in that way, I think we’ve progressed.
AB: Looking forward for you, what else would you like to do with this film or what other projects are you hoping to work on?
JC: I’m writing something right now with this guy, Sal Paskowitz who wrote Age of Adaline. I’m doing a book adaptation right now, called Counting by 7s, that I’m really excited about. I just want to continue to make films from my lens, and make diverse films. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Asian-American, but I think no matter what I make, it’ll go through my instrument, my system, so it’ll be through my perspective. But I hope to also continue to make Asian American films as well. And also I’m acting in an ABC show called Deception. We start shooting in September, but I think it’ll be mid-season show, so look out for Deception. And [Gook] comes out August 18th in Arclight Hollywood, and then it’ll expand out to Regal Cinemas in major cities. It’ll be in Seattle August 25th, so I think it’d be really awesome if people… You know, that’s the other thing I want to say, because this is an Asian publication, right? I think it’s important to point out problems, but I also think it’s important to support the people who are trying to do something about it. If you want Hollywood to represent you, you have to show that financially, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. When films made by Asian-American filmmakers about Asian Americans come out, we really need to vote with our dollars and our wallets because that’ll show Hollywood that we have buying power and we’re interested in seeing stories about Asian Americans or Asians, in general. So I think it’s really important that people come out, not because it’s my film, but because it’s a good message to Hollywood that it’s important.