Saturday 23 May 2020

On demand: "Gook"

Worry not: the writer-director-star of Gook, Justin Chon, is Korean, and so that derogatory title can be understood as a very 21st century reclamation, or as redirected provocation. (If you're unaware of the term, bully for you: you'll find an English dictionary definition amid the opening credits, and a more precise Korean etymology in the course of the movie.) In every other respect, Chon's film arrives as something of a throwback. It takes place over one day in late April 1992, on the eve and edge of the L.A. riots, and it's been shot in that chalky monochrome associated with the make-and-mend indies of the period (think Clerks or Go Fish). It actually connects to that particular wave of filmmaking through its framing and content, drawn as it is to the everyday lives of marginalised characters - in this case, Korean-American brothers Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So), attempting to maintain the upkeep on a ladies' shoe store in the middle of an urban nowhere, broadly oblivious to the fact the whole neighbourhood is about to go up in flames. What we're here to witness, then, is the lighting of a touchpaper: if Chon turns to Kevin Smith for a look, he looks to Spike Lee - and that previous indie touchstone Do the Right Thing - for his narrative heat.

Things here are fairly stormy from the off. Those titles have barely rolled before Eli is beaten up by a Latino gang, and while the store provides an intersectional second home for a young black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker), Daniel starts a brouhaha at the counter when offhandedly referring to a group of African-American shoppers as "you people". The title will reappear, spraypainted on Eli's car - and this time it isn't being reclaimed. Chon's editorial line is that the racial melting pot positioned close to the heart of the American dream is a lovely idea in theory, but often combustible in practice. Gook opens with shots of an as yet unidentified property ablaze, another early sign of trouble, and goes on to suggest there exists almost as much enmity within the races as there is between them. There's a long-running rivalry - far from friendly - between the siblings and local convenience-store owner Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director's father, and a real-life shoe store owner), and there's even something simmering between Eli and Daniel themselves: the former responsible for keeping receipts, the latter chiefly here to hit on customers. (It's Daniel who prompts some formation dancing to Hall and Oates' "Maneater", an unlikely cue for a movie set in 1992, albeit one that may help Caucasian viewers feel more comfortable.)

The film's strength lies in how it strikes a balance between these two divergent personalities. In an early scene, we see Eli and Kamilla on the store's roof, stressing over the plumes of smoke going up like distress signals in other parts of the city, but Chon's keener to emphasise how life, business and casual racism carried on as usual for many Angelenos that day: the first half is mostly Daniel-like hanging out and getting a feel for this place, one workaday detail - Eli sending Kamilla out to get change for the register from Mr. Kim - sparking a flashback to my own days behind the counter. It feels a touch piecemeal, like one of those actors' passion projects stitched together here and there using whatever cheques came in from the day job (Chon was a Twilight teen); as such, it never quite gathers the incendiary momentum of its Lee's film (which was backed by Universal, lest we forget). Yet it's been attentively cast, styled and costumed, which helps to smooth over some of its rougher edges. There was no Korean-American equivalent in 1992 - which is why one might call Gook overdue: it's chronicling an aspect of American life the movies were blind to at the time - but Chon's co-stars absolutely look as though they could have stepped out of a Boyz N The Hood or American Me. One wrinkle is that the film's current UK streaming platform Amazon Prime provides no subtitle option, which shortsells a couple of longish conversations in Korean. What's quietly impressive is how much Gook communicates all the same about the cost - psychological and economic - of being on the fringes. You thought Dante and Randal were having a bad day? No, my friend: this is a bad day.

Gook is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

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