In Gook, a pair of Korean brothers in their late twenties living in Los Angeles in 1992 befriend an eleven-year old black girl from around the way. The girl’s name is Kamilla. The brothers, Eli and David, are running their dead father’s shoe store. Business is slow, and they’re in a rough part of town, so they’re on the verge of shutting down—but between selling stilettos and Jordans, they mostly fuck around in the shop. Kamilla cuts class to work with them. The film is set on the first day of the Watts Riots, an event that shook LA’s divisions to their foundations, but for Kamilla, Eli and David, there’s nothing remarkable about their companionship. It’s only after the world intrudes, and they’re touched by the city’s fractures, that the reality they’ve built for themselves dissolves through their fingers.
Gook is Justin Chon’s first directorial effort. He wrote, produced, and starred in it himself. And while Chon has acted in a number high-profile films, Gook is a total departure from the rest of his oeuvre (excepting, maybe, the ebullient Seoul Searching). Chon’s work in the Twilight movies, “Dr. Ken”, and 21 and Over demonstrated his range, but those moments felt like stepping stones towards bolder, heavier opportunities. Describing the writing process for Gook, in a conversation with Ava DuVernay, he noted that, “people were confused that the film was about two Korean-American brothers and one black girl, but that’s my reality.”
The riots bloom over the course of an hour and a half—beginning with grainy footage of Rodney King’s assault, before descending into the rumors of “free stuff” across town. But those developments don’t announce themselves. They happen gradually, a lot like in life. Tension permeates from block to block, and Chon shows us LA’s racial factions, formal and otherwise—from the city’s Latino street gangs, to the cliques of black women window-shopping down the block (there are no white people to speak of in Gook)—but, by the film’s end, our trio’s own muted internal racial strife is magnified by the world around them.
Kamilla runs errands, and handles merchandise for the brothers. When Eli asks if she’s got somewhere else to be, she tells him, honestly, that there’s nowhere else to go. No one else treats her the way her friends do. They aren’t the obvious choices, but they’re who she’s got. It’s the sort of functional tranquility, real in its flaws, that’s wholly enviable, and entirely unsustainable.
In this LA, in the early 90’s, a pair of Korean brothers and their black friend simply couldn’t be. Chon pokes at that truth, specific for the film’s moment; but it’s also linked to ours, prompting the viewer to ask why. That premise in itself would’ve been enough to carry the movie: it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary showing multiple cultures on-screen, in American cinema, can feel. True multiculturalism is seldom seen on camera. And whenever you do see it, those characters are usually lost in space, or they are driving too fast on unmarked roads, or they’ve been called upon to save the city to comedic effect. Or they’re operating in close proximity to superheroes. Or they are literally navigating the apocalypse. But, usually, people of color on film just aren’t given the chance to interact across ethnicities, or at least not beyond the motifs of ensemble casts sporting college-brochure diversity politics and unambiguous formulas.
Narratives like Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy (in which an Indian-American family attempts to adopt an undocumented Mexican woman’s child), or plots like the ones seen throughout “Insecure” (where Issa Rae riffs on anti-blackness and anti-Latinoness within their respective communities), are far and few between. American media has made (some) strides in showing multiple communities on camera simultaneously (despite inevitably, unendingly, being filtered through the lens of whiteness), but the ways in which those individual cultures conflict and intersect are hardly examined with the care these entities demonstrate on a daily basis. Instead, you get catch-all narratives, indistinguishable in their attempts to capture universality (or as Eddie Huang has put it: “You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference.”).
The Asian-American stories go in one pile, stuffed snugly beneath The Joy Luck Club, but above All-American Girl. The black movies go in another, scattered between Girls Trip, Beyond the Lights, and “Hidden Fences”. Muslim-Americans are siloed, immediately, into narratives where they’re perceived as threats; there is no contemporary formula for Latino or Native casts in America to speak of; and these communities can never touch, they’re never allowed to intersect, but when they are given opportunities to converge, it is generally, even in the best-case scenarios, filtered through the lens of whiteness.
To find ourselves having these same conversations, hundreds of years into America’s own narrative, is a problem worth diagnosing. It’s a discomfort worth addressing. Those portrayals of neatly filtered, unconnected, uncomplicated singularity are entirely divorced from the multicultural country that we live in. And, in this way, the viewer is a lot like Gook’s Kamilla: we should be just as surprised as her when she learns—from her family, and from society–that her relationships with Eli and David “shouldn’t” be possible. Because the brothers, she says, treat her like family. She says it to her own family’s face, to disastrous results.
For Kamilla, it’s shocking to discover that balmy afternoons with Eli sound dubious to her siblings. It’s shocking to discover that David’s dream of becoming an R&B singer (as a Korean-American, in the 90’s) is logistically absurd. It’s alarming to watch the two brothers fight; and it’s empowering when César—the man working with Eli and David, operating with limited English—comes up clutch throughout the film; and when Mr. Kim, another Korean shop owner, pulls a gun on Kamilla, it’s as baffling to the girl as when her own brother tells her that she can’t associate with her friends.
When Kamilla asks Eli what the word Gook means, her tells her, “in Korean, it just means country.” He lists the ways in which you belong to a home in Korean. When he gets to American, he calls it his favorite: “miguk”.
Chon’s characters navigate the uncertainty of living with one another in a country that still doesn’t acknowledge those intersections. Eli praises David for his ambition in some scenes, while berating him mercilessly in others. David’s interactions with black women are sexist and stumbling, but he offers them discounts regardless. Kamilla’s older sister remains apprehensive about her relationships, but she tries for peace with Eli and David nonetheless; and Kamilla’s older brother, negotiating his blackness in a city that scoffs at police brutality, directs his rage at the two brothers until they’re the only ones left around to help.
When all of these interactions come to a head, Kamilla, the most loved of any of these characters, pays for her community’s intersections. She suffers their triumphs and follies. In many ways, she’s the martyr for their interactions. She’s representative of their (our) best. She’s a call for them (us) to do better. And Gook is a reminder that we’re all living inside of a much larger context, and those stories, our stories, can be noble in themselves.
It’s in the small moments. They’re what ultimately make a life. And during one scene in particular, on a slow moment in the shop, Kamilla and David and Eli stand stock still, until all of a sudden they aren’t—and then they’re pulsing with rhythm and life. They’re dancing with no agenda. There’s no ulterior motive, they’re simply enjoying one another’s space. And it’s only after a pair of black visitors enters their store, gawking at the show of intersectionality in front of them, that the surreality of their companionship presents itself, and the trio is faced with their reality once again.
 I saw a screening of the movie in Chalmette, Louisiana. It’s this tiny little place just east of downtown New Orleans. It’s less New Orleans than Louisiana, and I mean Louisiana Louisiana: you pass through the Lower Ninth Ward’s underside and then you cross this bridge and the theatre’s housed in the back of a mall. Drive too fast and you’ll miss it. When I paid for my ticket, and told the seller what I was seeing, he looked up and blinked twice and he coughed and he smiled. And I entered the theatre thinking this was all I needed to know about Chalmette, which made complete sense. That’s the climate we’re in. But on my way out, this thick white guy in a tie stopped me, and he asked if I enjoyed the film. He shook my hand; it turned out he managed the theatre and also booked the films. He’d been fighting for weeks to screen Gook, and he was surprised so few theatres in the South were showing it. Maybe it was the title, he said, and maybe it was the times; and it was a risk calling it that, he said, you’ve got this little indie movie, you just didn’t know what you were getting into; but, he said, it was the right choice, the director made a good call, because it was important, that word, and that people saw where it came from, because it spoke to a larger truth; and maybe, said this white man, if we all partook, if we knew where we were coming from, with that word and others like it, then that’s how we win. Then he said he hoped I enjoyed the movie, and that I made it back to Chalmette soon.