I admit that I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. This movie and I have circled each other awkwardly at several film festivals. I’d heard the buzz, sure, but couldn’t repeat it. I mean, just look at that aggressively confrontational title. It makes me uncomfortable. Understand that’s not a criticism; I believe it is intentional, and I admire that, forcing us to sit with this glaring four-letter message of hate, a word used by white faces to make others feel small and less than.
Gook is a movie shot in glaring black and white about the tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans during the Rodney King riots. Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) are Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father’s shoe store afloat even though its location in a predominantly poor and African-American neighbourhood is less than ideal. On this particular day, as the whole city awaits the King verdict, they get a visitor at the store. Kamilla (Simone Baker) is an unlikely friend and ally, being an African-American 11 year old girl, and yet she just won’t stay away, even though she should be in school, and she’s been expressly forbidden by her older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).
Aside from starring, Justin Chon wrote and directed as well, and you can immediately tell how many intimately personal details he’s incorporated. His choice to shoot in black and white only emphasizes the deeply emotional script, and allows simple but striking cinematography to transport. Rationally, I know the film wasn’t perfect, and there are even a couple of details I could nit-pick, but emotionally I felt hypnotized. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lovely Ms. Baker, which Chon must have known since he generously gives her top billing.There’s so much to praise here it almost has me tongue-tied, and I suppose I’d rather not give too much away. Gook is dense with beautiful observations and strong dialogue and aching insight.
Although I’ve always known that gook is an ugly word, an angry slur, I’m ashamed that it wasn’t until this film that I learned that it’s actually the Korean word (guk) that simply means country. Hanguk is Korea; Miguk is America. Americans took this word full of pride and used it against them during the war because it’s easier to kill ‘gooks’ than to kill people. Gook is a powerful reminder that America has oppressed basically every minority during its nearly 242 years. And yet the immigrants still come – to the land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity. And maybe someday, with their help, even equality.