This film is set during the 1992 LA Riots, but it is impossible not to hear echoes of subsequent events, such as the unjust persecution of Chinatown’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the selective prosecution of NYPD officer Peter Liang, and the still unsolved (and possible hate crime) assault on Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens)—provided you had heard of those news stories in the first place. In each case, it was deemed socially and politically acceptable to scapegoat or marginalize Asians. This was especially true of the grossly under-reported crimes committed against the small proprietorships owned by Koreans and other Asians in 1992. Twenty-five years later, their testimony is still often excluded from the media narrative. Drawing on his family’s own experiences, writer-director-lead actor Justin Chon tells the inspired-by-actual-events-story of two Korean American brothers who will be blindsided by violent looters in Gook (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Their father’s shoe store is slowly dying, but Eli clings to it, like he holds onto his anger. In contrast, Daniel yearns to leave the store to pursue his R&B dreams, but he is too passive to directly challenge his brother. The store also provides a direct link to eleven-year-old African American Kamilla, their mascot and surrogate little sister. Years ago, her mother was shot dead inside the store along with their father during an ill-fated hold-up attempt.
Before the Rodney King verdict is even announced, Eli receives a beating from local thugs. However, Daniel will eventually catch much worse when he is caught in the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong time. Both brothers understand the verdict is an ill omen, but they are too preoccupied with their own bickering to recognize the storm brewing, until it is too late.
Chon has screen intensity of a younger, saner Sean Penn that even shines through in comedies, like the under-seen Seoul Searching. There is a rawness and honesty to his performance that harkens back even earlier, to the work of Brando and the Angry British young men. He is always a livewire in the film, but his scenes with his real-life father Sang Chon (a former child actor, who survived the 1992 lootings as a Greater LA store-owner) crackle with electricity. Initially, Mr. Kim appears to be a cranky foil for Eli and Kamilla, but he will have wisdom to offer during the crisis.
David So nicely counterbalances Chon as Daniel. While he presents himself as a more easygoing mensch, he is really just keeps his resentments quietly bottled up. Simone Baker is also very good as Kamilla, but her character often feels more like a symbol of inclusive martyrdom, transparently modeled on a widely-reported victim of the riots.