gook movie
Photo from the film Gook.

Director: Justin Chon
Written by: Justin Chon
Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz, Omono Okojie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/8/17
Opens: August 18, 2017

The pejorative term “gook” was used daily by our servicemen during the Vietnam War. Never mind that the perceived enemy was the North: even America’s allies in South Vietnam got the “gook” treatment. Many of us, seeing how Asian-Americans hold a considerable number of high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley, and in Google where they are thirty-five percent of the work force, cannot believe there is discrimination against them in the U.S. Asian-Americans are not considered a minority group that merit government help via affirmative action, either. That’s why Justin Chon’s film is an eye-opener, showing that not only whites, but particularly the African-American population in this movie, living near Compton, California, are surprisingly racist, notwithstanding what should be their own empathy with another persecuted group.

As I recall, during the L.A. riots following the sickening police beating of taxi driver Rodney King and the acquittal by the officers, one of the Korean store owners shouted to a group of demonstrating Blacks threatening to smash her store window, “I’m Black!” Of course she meant that she was an oppressed minority as well, but that cut no ice with the protesters, just as the African-Americans (except for one) in “Gook” do not consider Korean-Americans to be “one of them.”

While the principal focus of “Gook” is on Eli (writer-director Justin Chon), the surprisingly good performance comes from Simone Baker as the 11-year-old orphan, who would skip school to hang out in the broken-down shoe store owned by Eli and his brother Daniel (David So) and try to stay away from her volatile brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.). For his part Daniel hopes for a better future, while ultimately Eli is so frustrated from the treatment he and his brother get from the local population that he would as soon burn down his own store rather than stick around the neighborhood.

The movie opens with Kamilla, showing her free spirit by dancing gleefully in the street, even motivating Eli and Daniel to join her in their store. Not so free-spirited are the local thugs who in one case, out of pure racism, beat Daniel, who tries to run away on the street. The store owner next door, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director’s non-professional dad), runs a liquor store and has no use for Kamilla, accusing her of stealing some Twinkies.

Though the L.A. riots of 1991 take place a mile or so from the shoe store, they are much a part of this story, which cinematographer Ante Cheng shoots in black and white to evoke the dismal surroundings and wasted lives of the residents. Writer-director Chon, whose 2015 film “Man Up” (about a slacker who gets his Mormon girlfriend pregnant and is helped to become a man by his stoner friend), can be dubbed “Chon Up” with this picture, a more serious, convincing, job with good ensemble performances and some insight into Asian-American culture among those who cannot aspire to work for Google or in Silicon Valley.

Unrated. 95 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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