“Watch This” is a series of articles about under-seen films that deserve a greater appreciation.
In a movie with a main cast compromised entirely of minorities, it is perhaps fitting that Justin Chon’s “Gook” is shot in greyscale. In this desaturated format, color is not just a single facet of these characters, it is an inescapable, unavoidable fact. When put against the drab concrete landscape of Los Angeles, light and dark skin pops in equal measure. Chon’s sophomore feature tackles race with a blunt instrument, unsubtly pushing it up against the screen with reckless abandon for the world to see.
Telling the story of two Korean American brothers trying to run a shoe store during the LA Race Riots, “Gook” tells a morality tale that scrapes under the hood of American prejudice in a manner that couldn’t feel more timely and relevant.
Authenticity is the key to what makes this movie work. The characters here talk like real people. There are very few instances of “movie dialogue.” Actors stumble and repeat lines awkwardly, and curse words and racial slurs fly left and right. The manner in which it is shot also gives it a great sense of verisimilitude, echoing the look of cheap film cameras used to shoot ’80s and ’90s independent films like “Clerks” and “She’s Gotta Have It.” “Gook” feels like more than an evocation of ’90’s history; it is an evocation of the ’90’s mindset. In an age when making smaller features that have the gloss and shine of a big budget studio picture is easier than ever, the deliberate choice of making “Gook” feel purposely low budget acts as a moment of solidarity between the filmmakers and its characters.
However, Chon’s film is more than just an exercise in form. It is a powerful, character-driven drama about lost innocence and the bonds between family. While the film is technically about two Korean brothers, it primarily centers around one character, a little African- American girl named Kamila. The usage of a child in a message-movie can raise some red flags- -how often have we seen children in cinema used as symbols of innocence? However, Chon gives the character of Kamila some rough edges that turn her into more of a real person rather than just some metaphor.
So, what exactly does “Gook” have to say about American racial relations? Despite the story being that of an old-school morality tale, its message is surprisingly radical. Chon’s solution for solving racial hatred in America is just as simple as it is powerful: burn it all down and start it up again. This is most effectively shown in the way it bookends the story. At the beginning, we see Kamila dancing in front of a burning building. At the end, we realize that the building is the shoe store that the two brothers burned down. In the world of this film, the shoe store is representative of the status quo, something that the protagonist, Eli, is desperate to hold on to while being unaware that it is what is holding him back. Starting the film with a little girl dancing in front of the burning shoe store turns what could have been a horrifying image into something transcendent. It is a celebration of destruction.
“Gook’s” anarchic spirit is further hammered in by the way the building is burned down-through the usage of Molotov cocktails. A common weapon of anarchist revolutionaries, the Molotov has progressed from being a simple symbol of destruction to becoming a symbol of reconstruction. Chon’s vision for a healing America moves beyond one of fire and carnage and into one of rebirth. This way, “Gook” is able to sidestep villainizing one particular side and instead present a powerful call to action. American society is corrupt from the ground up, it states, and the only cure is a complete revolution.