By Christl Stringer
*Warning: Article contains some spoilers*
“See what happens when we don’t talk to one another,” says Justin Chon about his directorial debut, GOOK, the story of two Korean-American brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So), struggling to keep their family’s shoe store open during the L.A. riots. The “talk” Chon stresses refers to the hyphenated Americans, of Korean and African descent, exploited and abandoned by justice and authority. Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Personified through the character, Kamilla, GOOK is about two ethnicities who think they’re on different sides of the fence but in reality, they walk the same violent, makeshift, and unpaved path to The American Dream.
This film premieres twenty-five years after the Rodney King verdict and five years after his death. The commonality and prevalence of police brutality still sears American summers as justice fluctuates through the murder verdicts of Jordan Edwards and Philando Castile. Decades of African-American slaughter silenced other ethnicities’ stories who were also present during the riots. Now the stifled Korean-American narrative can breathe. What director/writer Justin Chon refers to in his aforementioned quote appeals to his own experience. GOOK is semi-autobiographical for Chon, who grew up in southern California where his father owned a shoe store that was looted during the riots when he was 11.
The color-grading of black and white focuses on the stark contrasts explored in the film: evil/pure, light/dark, ignorance/bliss, and weakness/strength. The film opens with 11 year-old Kamilla (Simone Baker) dancing, oblivious to the burning building in the background. This sequence is seen multiple times throughout the film and is reminiscent of Rosie Perez’s hip-hop number during the opening credits of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989). A prologue, a metaphor, and a foreshadowing of Kamilla’s death. Chon says Kamilla was originally “Kamil” and represents Chon and his innocence lost as a result of the violence. Kamilla, an orphan raised by her older siblings Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and Regina (Onono Okojie), refuses to go to school against her siblings’ urges.
Instead the misfit hangs around Eli and Daniel’s family store. They adopt her sisterhood and she adopts their protective friendship. They tell her to go to school but she employs herself at the store. Kamilla feels the brothers are more her family than her sibling-parents at home. Her adoration for Eli and Daniel is Keith’s, who flips burgers during the day and gang bangs at night, demise. Eli gives Kamilla a fresh pair of sneakers as compensation for her hard work and when Keith discovers them, he conspires a scheme. Keith already beat up Daniel earlier that day and stole his shoes and ice.
Daniel could care less about the shoe store Eli desperately tries to keep open. He wants to be an R&B singer. His secret passion leads him to record a demo in the closet of a neighborhood “producer.” In order to pay the “producer,” after Keith and his friends rob him, he must accompany the “producer” to the riots following the verdict via car, where Daniel is pulled out the door and beat to a pulp again.
The violence against Eli and Daniel manifests from discontent and powerlessness among the African-American community. When the audience first meets Eli, he is getting shoes to sell in the family store off a box truck. He cannot fit all the shoes in his car. Then gangsters roll up and he throws the shoes back into the truck. Eli tries to walk down the street like a transaction wasn’t about to occur but the gangsters curb-stomp him anyway. Eli and Daniel continue getting beat up because they are “other.” But the people beating them up, African and Hispanic-Americans, are no less “other” than them. A dependency exists between these hyphenated Americans. The guy Eli picks the shoes up from on the box truck: African-American. The customers at the shoe store: African-American. The guy that gets Eli gas, on his bicycle: Hispanic-American. Customers at Mr. Kim’s store: all of the above. A community of “other” Americans on the verge having a little more than enough to make it through the day.
After discovering Kamilla’s new shoes, Keith wants to rob the store and sell the sneakers himself. Regina and Kamilla know Keith. Against her siblings wishes, Kamilla goes to the store to warn Eli and Daniel that Keith and his crew are coming. She doesn’t reveal that she brought a gun. When Keith and his crew roll up, the brothers have already hidden the shoes and given them decoys. After driving away, the crew finds this out and, returns more violent. They try to burn the store down. As Kamilla runs out of the store to escape, she trips. The gun goes off. A bullet punctures Kamilla’s torso. The same store where her mother died years prior. We do not see Kamilla, voice of innocence, rise like a phoenix and dance in front of the flames. That image was a misnomer in the world of the film. The mortality of innocence definite.
Innocence should not mean a cluelessness and naivety to how the world works. Innocence should not be its own cause of death. Innocence is the willingness to listen, learn, and communicate. The death of Kamilla is unwanted, unnecessary, and preventable. The “talk” is messy, unprecedented, and unformatted. It starts with Kamilla: a sign of hope, openness, compassion, opinions/views, and a sense of morality. History repeats itself as can be seen through the explicit, contemporary relevance of a film that takes place twenty-five years ago. As time progresses, the “talk” won’t be unformatted and the path to the American Dream will be paved. It will be like water, sometimes violent but mostly flowing, babbling, and clear in intention. A sense of community among those who America has chosen to hyphenate, is necessary for progress and the preservation of innocence.
*Chon’s quotes are from a talkback at following Gook’s May 5 screening at the Montclair Film Festival.