When actor/writer/director Justin Chon was 11, his father took in early news reports about the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and left without a word to drive to the family’s shoe store in Paramount, a relatively poor 4.8-square-mile city bordered by Compton and Downey.
“In a lot of Korean families, when something’s wrong, people don’t say anything. They just react,” Chon says. “The verdict was about to come out, and as the day progressed, you could feel the energy change. Then the riots broke out.”
Chon was watching live as Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten. That footage then played on repeat. “It was movie-level violence,” he says. And then came footage of Korean store owners defending their businesses with guns and improvised weapons. “I was like, ‘Does this mean we have to move, have to change schools, make new friends?’ ”
As Chon got older, he returned to these memories again and again. His family’s shoe store was looted during the riots, though his father was unhurt. But the image of Denny and the pervasive anger and fear blanketing the city was something that he, as an actor and filmmaker, desperately wanted to reassess. Yet every role he read for in films about the L.A. uprising seemed to miss the mark of how those events affected individual people, especially Korean-Americans.
As writer/director of his sophomore feature Gook, Chon doesn’t take the riots head-on, from the perspective of someone at ground zero of the unrest. Instead, he takes a long view, looking at the day leading up to the verdict and riots through the eyes of two families who are removed geographically a few miles from the violence but affected by it just the same — as Chon himself was.
In the film, an 11-year-old African-American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) has befriended two Korean-American brothers — Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) — who own and operate their deceased father’s ramshackle women’s shoe shop. The three are inextricably tied for life, because Kamilla’s mother and the men’s father were both shot and killed in a holdup at the store, many years earlier. Kamilla’s brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) blames the brothers for his mother’s death and subsequent poverty. Leading up to the verdicts, TVs and radios are tuned to the news, setting a tense backdrop for a showdown between the two families.
“When I went out to pitch the project — it’s the craziest thing — it perplexed people that it was a film about a Korean store owner and an 11-year-old black girl,” Chon says. “It blew my mind that they couldn’t wrap their head around it, that these people would have relationships if they’re in the same neighborhoods.” Potential financiers were even more confused that the character of Daniel was aspiring to be an R&B singer — it seemed news to them that Korean-Americans could be inspired by American pop. So it became ever more important to Chon, having lived through the experience, to represent the people and riots as they really were — not as our popular culture usually imagined them.
The director even cast his own father in a pivotal role, as Mr. Kim, a traditional corner-store owner who refuses to speak English and butts heads with young Korean-American men who want so badly to assimilate and thrive. But in convincing him to take the part, Chon found his father didn’t remember the riots with the same curiosity he did. “My dad is really grumpy. I wrote the part for him. But he was confused as to why I wanted to revisit this time. It took him three months to commit.” Still, the experience of directing his father proved significant for both. Chon found it was the first time that his dad seemed to view them each as “kind of equals, rather than with me lower than him in this Korean-American age hierarchy.” Chon compares how his father reacted to the riots 25 years ago — getting in his car and driving away with no emotion — to how emotive he was on set while playing the role of Mr. Kim. “I’ve never experienced anything like that with him before,” Chon says with more than a hint of pride in his voice.
The cast worked together for two months of rehearsal, almost as though Chon were directing a play. (“They weren’t beholden to their marks. They could do whatever they wanted on the shoot day, but I wanted them to feel comfortable.”) Since Baker was so young, they didn’t have much time with her, and Chon had the uncomfortable task of teaching this little girl the history of the riots.
“Her mom really needed to be a part of the team,” Chon says. “So we talked a lot during those two months — about social issues, talking about each specific scene and what it meant. Obviously, she has no connection to this event emotionally, so it was hard for her to understand the gravity of the situation.”
As is the case with many films directed by actors, the nuanced, emotional performances drive Gook’s story. Chon believes both Baker and Cook are destined to be stars, and critics have celebrated both. Cook creates a multilayered character in Keith. As the actor performs “thuggish” actions — like jumping David So’s character and plotting to loot the shoe store — he conveys that Keith himself is also performing, trying to be someone he’s not. To portray vulnerability, even as you sock someone in the face, is extraordinarily difficult.
Since Chon made this Sundance-premiered film on a shoestring budget, he’s still shocked that he’s getting a limited theatrical run. But the warm reception to his passion project is a testament to how sorely needed a story of this kind was; Korean-Americans were hit hard financially during the riots — half of the $1 billion of damage was sustained by Korean-owned businesses — and intergenerational conflict from the events still runs deep, as does uneasiness between the city’s African-American and Korean-American communities. “People shy away from talking about what they actually want to say,” Chon says. “We need to respect each other. But if we’re not actually talking, I think it’s just a bunch of tiptoeing around it.” And Chon, who’s relentlessly spoken out about race and discrimination in Hollywood, is the first to say he invites discussion and criticism about the portrayals in his film.
“Look, we’d be far better to one another in this country if we just talked, if we hit things head on.”