Between April 29 to May 4, 1992, Los Angeles shattered into burning ruins and angry protesters. The civil unrest was a long time coming but the acquittal of the police officers that were involved in the beating of Rodney King was when people just had enough and took the streets. Buildings were looted, people were attacked, and there were lots of fires. For those of us, like myself, who resided in the middle of the turmoil, those days are remembered with anxiety, fear, and yet with cathartic righteousness. Even an eight year old girl, who sat on the floor in the apartment with the lights turned off, listening to the chaos outside as her father stood ready to defend his family, knew that it was scary, exciting, and very important.
Twenty-five years may seem like a generation ago but that fire that burned so bright has not been extinguished. Even today, there is so much fear and anxiety. When just making a buck is already so hard, many have t0 worry if this will be their last day.
Movies, documentaries, and other renditions have only painted one side of the story. The effects of the LA riots trickled to everyone in the city but most of the fiscal impact hit Korean Americans. Many businesses that were targeted during the riots were owned by Korean Americans. After the days of destruction and violence, one of the largest marches comprised of Asian Americans calling for peace and no police brutality.
For this 25th anniversary of the LA Riots, the Los Angeles Asian American Pacific Film Festival premiered Gook, the sophomore film written and directed by Justin Chon at the Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo. One glance around the sold-theater showed the city’s diversity in generations and race. In that moment, I truly felt part of a community.
Gook is a movie that is not just about the LA Riots. It is about family and friendship tried and tested during the crisis. Eli (played by Justin Chon) and Daniel (played by David So) are managing a small women’s shoe store in Paramount, CA. Eli holds the stress of keeping the store together as his brother has eyes on another dream. Kamella (played by Simone Baker) is the extended sister to the brothers who help them out even though they feebly try to get her to go to school. In the film, it is the day that that news of the officers acquittal hits the news and the residents of LA are stunned. As the funnels of smoke increase in the distance, Eli is still focused on doing whatever it takes to keep the business going. He is so focused that by the time chaos hits, he is completely unprepared for it.
Believing that they were far enough away from the disastrous that was impending upon them, Eli is dealing with his own problems as are Daniel and Kamella. As they each deal with the consequences of their decisions, the bonds that bind them together are constantly tested. In between these tests are moments of much needed levity. For even when the world is burning around you, you can still have a dance party
Up until this point, I was only familiar with Chon as one of the funny youtubers in the BgA kpop parody music video Dong Saya Dae and as the actor playing Seth on Dramaworld. None of this prepared me for his talent in creating Gook. The film as a whole is an amazing work that has to be experienced. He was able to weave so many issues into a film that I was left sitting in a packed theater speechless listening to the sniffles from all around.
It is too simple to say that the cast was amazing but that’s the truth. They were ALL amazing. David So, Youtube comedian, shocked me with his acting. He was lovable, hate-able, but always relatable. Simone Barker is a star. An absolute star.
The most obvious issue the film touched upon was racial tension. Racial tension existed between African Americans, Latino Americans, and Korean Americans living in the same neighborhood. Then there was the generation gap between Eli and the owner of the liquor store, an elderly Korean American man. Domestic issues, what it means to be family, working towards a dream, fearing for your life just from walking down the street, hustling, and the frailty of human life were also packed in. All of this was in one movie. Even after a few days, I can think of one scene and just see it in a different light.
After the movie, Justin Chon brought out all of the staff that helped him make this movie.
“Look at all of the diversity on this stage,” he told the audience. We applauded every single person on that stage, from the grip all the way to the Executive Producers. So often we never know who works behind the camera so I applaud Chon for highlighting the people that helped make this project into fruition.
The Q&A concluded with the great news that Gook was picked up Samuel Goldwyn Films and will be playing in theaters on August 2017!
After the movie and Q&A, a much exhausted correspondent walked down the quiet streets of Little Tokyo. By one block, the weight of the movie and the history behind caused me to look around and onto the city skyline. The city has changed and rebuilt since then but it is still city of diverse makeup who carry the same fears. When one watches a movie like Gook, there is no one right reaction that. What it will do, no matter what, is to look back and see it from a different view.