UR (Unrated)
94 Minutes
Released August 18th

The film Gook is set during the April1992 Los Angeles Riots, a peripheral backdrop that sets the cultural environment of the story. The characters seem to live in an emotional microcosm in the midst of that greater panorama of racial tension and violence. Director Justin Chon plays the lead in this intimate story shot in black and white that is at once bleak and full of intense relationships amidst a background of violence that feels startlingly ordinary. The sparse surroundings of Paramount, just east of Compton, are the setting where the action revolves. The area is not directly involved in the Riots, and this allows television coverage of the event in the background to set the stage and then simply become background – craziness “going on down in South Central.” Production designers Sharon Roggio and Jena Serbu have created sets that perfectly establish the tone, from the tiny shoe store that the Korean brothers own to the wide four-lane empty street between their shop and the neighborhood grocery/ liquor store.

The style is set by Ante Cheng’s bleak and beautiful cinematography, setting up a world that becomes normal over the course of the film. The characters take on a life of their own, which is refreshing – the story is not message-driven. The beginning few minutes are beautifully shot. The choice to use black and white rather than color allows the contrasts and shadows to create a depth for the setting and characters. The time of day that each scene takes place can be understood from the way the light hits the faces of the actors. The plot has a few gaps. However, the players and the setting are haunting. The story illustrates the life of a Korean immigrant family in Los Angeles in 1992, and draws on the story of their forefathers who emigrated looking for a better life and instead found grueling hardship.

The actors endow their roles with unique and likeable personalities. Justin Chon’s “Eli” is the misguided yet well-meaning older brother trying to make a living while keeping peace among his friends. Simone Baker as teenage “Kamalla” is a true force – look for more to come from this young actress. She won the Seattle International Film Festival “Golden Space Needle Award” for Best Actress for this performance – OK, don’t laugh, that’s actually the name of the award. “Mr. Kim,” the fierce neighborhood elder, who owns the liquor store and suffers no fools, is played by Sang Chon. Chon happens to be the director’s father and was himself a popular child actor in South Korean cinema during the 1960’s.

This movie depicts the violence that people in this tough neighborhood inflict upon one another, and also the kindness they bestow on their friends. This happens in any urban area. However in an affluent environment, the violence would be passive-aggressive non-communication rather than physical aggression. Justin Chon, who has built an impressive resume as an actor, has created a creative and thoughtful independent film, worth seeing.

 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which is the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people. She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com. For previously published reviews see https://kwboole.wordpress.com

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