The Korean word ‘guk’ (or ‘gook’) means ‘country’, and it has been speculated that this was the origin of the titular slur of Justin Chon’s second feature.
Early in the film, the eleven-year old Kamilla asks Eli, played by the writer/director, what America is called in Korean. Eli replies wryly, acutely aware of the slur spray-painted on his car. “That’s my favorite one. Miguk.” It rolls off his tongue as Me Gook.
Shot entirely in black-and-white, Gook opens just before the start of the Rodney King riots that paralysed Los Angeles in 1992. The monochromatic aesthetic lends his film a distant, almost sterile feel even as it explodes with anger and violence. Gunshots ring out on the streets when police officers leave citizens to fend for themselves, and bodies are constantly kicked and beaten to the sound of abuse. Drama is heightened to operatic extremes. But the desaturated landscape allows the period piece to feel like it could have taken place anywhere and anytime within the past few decades. It is odd to refer to Gook as a historical film, especially since it looks and feels so contemporary.
Two Korean-American brothers, Eli and Daniel (David So), run a women’s shoe store in an economically-depressed, largely minority neighbourhood of LA as anger at the trial builds up. Kamilla (Simone Baker) wanders in and offers herself as help. Despite Eli’s reluctance, the more easy-going Daniel with his aspirations of being an R&B singer is enthusiastic. Kamilla’s spunk eventually wins Eli over as they sit back and watch smoke blossoming over the city’s skyline, allowing him to briefly forget about his feud with the gun-happy convenience store owner Mr. Kim (played by Chon’s real life father Sang Chon) and the illegally-obtained shoes keeping their store afloat. As the riots spread and the day draws to an end, a series of increasingly violent events lead to confrontations with tragic consequences.
Although Chon’s script turns melodramatic and contrived in the second half, it has enough steam to carry its own weight. Baker’s Kamilla is delightful with her street smarts and her thuggish brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr) gains some sympathy despite his enthusiasm for violence and guns. Chon’s focus on the Korean-American side of the story leaves him with pencil-thin characterizations of LA’s black community and their situation, thus leaving the film feeling incomplete. Despite this, Gook’s fury drives it forward despite the hiccups. It is raw and bristles with energy concluding with very real pain.
Chon has crafted a neo-noir friendship drama at the boundaries of our past and present societies. While it may not have all the answers that we need right now, it certainly asks the right questions.