It’s a derogatory word, isn’t it? Yeah, I grew up in Calabasas with a good set of parents and a relatively nice and quiet neighborhood. I’ve been called a wetback, a bean-eater, and a spic, and I still have no idea what these words mean, let alone insults with the obvious exception of the “N” word.
In any case, GOOK’s story looks like a simple one. A pair of Korean-American brothers own a shoe store that’s not doing so well in a rough neighborhood where gang violence is likely the norm and strike up an unlikely friendship with an eleven-year-old black girl. I gotta say, that trailer has me pretty sold and looks very character-driven.
Here’s the cast. Starring, as well as directing and writing the story we have Justin Chon (21 & OVER  and TWILIGHT ), co-producer David So, who is making his feature film acting debut, (Congrats, sir), and young Simone Baker (1 episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY [2011 – ongoing]). In support, we have Curtiss Cook Jr. (1 episode of POWER [2014 – ongoing]).
Now for the crew. Composing the score is Roger Suen, known for a ton of short films. Finally, the cinematographer is Ante Cheng, known for short films, and making his feature film debut. Congrats, sir. Although, I do have to ask why there’s twenty-plus producers credited to this move.
Overall, I really do want to see this movie. Now I just have to make the time for it if my day job will let me.
This is my honest opinion of: GOOK
Set in 1992 during the Rodney King’s verdict and the subsequent L.A. riots. Korean-American brothers Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) struggle to keep their shoe store open, making ends meet to pay rent and even chase their dreams. Their fellow unofficial employee, an eleven-year-old African-American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker), skips school to help Eli and Daniel with making sales. As racial tensions escalate, their preconceptions of family and following their passions are tested over the course of a single day.
I liked this movie. A tad basic, but if you wanted to see a basic movie of this caliber executed right, then this is one of the better of its class.
So before anyone asks, yes, this movie really is all in black and white. Get over it, you color-dependent yuppies! A good story is what matters, not whether or not you see red, blue, and yellow.
Anyway, it’s actually a very engaging film. Performances all around are about what you’d think. Lots of swearing, “N” words, racial conflicts involving black guys jumping an Asian guy, basic stuff. But what isn’t basic and elevates the story is the character relationships and Justin Chon has a wonderful penchant for connection in this. Eli’s relationship with Daniel is uneasy. While Eli is very strict about keeping their shoe store open, all about the sales and do right by his late father who used to own the store himself. But Daniel is a little more carefree and fun-loving, eager to please beautiful women who come into the store and don’t want to pay for the high prices. But despite his frustrations, there is love and loyalty between them, even if their relationship is constantly strained. All Daniel wants to do follow his own passions and dreams, to sing R&B. To be fair, So is a great singer when it showcases him. You really feel for Daniel throughout the film too because much of the story is him wandering the streets getting jumped by Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and his crew of friends. He manages to work out a demo tape, but can’t pay for it. As a result, the guy who’s been kind enough to let Daniel use his custom built recording equipment forces him to join him on some looting in LA to pay him back, even though Daniel wants nothing to do with the riots.
But by far the best aspects of the film involve anything with Kamilla. She brings an endearing dynamic when she’s around the brothers, helping them with finding shoes during purchases from the stock room, dancing during the slow times, they’re almost a more loving set of brothers than her actual brother, Keith. Speaking of which, her relationship with him is complicated too. Keith is a cold man who has his own struggles keeping the bills paid and providing food for his two sisters. He certainly loves them, but he’s definitely a man of the “us versus them” mentality. He does not like Eli or Daniel and is directly responsible for Daniel getting beaten up in the film. One of the more powerful scenes in the film is when Keith finds Kamilla’s shoes that Eli gifted to her. Because she’s not allowed to hang out with them, he gets angry and almost throws his kid sister out of the house. This scene is so masterfully executed because it starts off mellow, but slowly builds up to some serious drama, desperation for her to stay out of trouble with Keith, but everything eventually crashes down. My heart was racing and I was holding back from physically screaming at the screen. Unless the movie’s bad, that’s a difficult feat for a good film to accomplish. On the one hand, it’s ridiculously easy to point your finger at him and call him a bad guy, and there’s plenty of evidence in his actions to back up the accusation, it’s also easy to forget that this is just the environment and the time period. I can’t pretend to remember what was going on in 1992, as I was born in 1989, so… pretty oblivious to things like racial tension and politics. Having grown up in quiet suburban homes my entire life, I can’t claim to know what lengths someone would have to go to just to survive walking the streets, your life constantly threatened by people who hate you simply because of your race, I can’t claim to know what that’s like. Again, you see the humanity in Keith. He’s not a blood-thirsty maniac, but he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep his family safe and secure and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.
About the closest issue I take with the film is the ending. While I’m sure Justin Chon was going for a poetic ending meant to be interpreted, it didn’t make much sense to me. Basically Keith wants to steal all the shoes from the store and sell them himself, but Kamilla warns the brothers and there’s a standoff. We saw earlier that she stole one of Keith’s pistols and in an attempt to diffuse the situation between the two conflicted parties, she pulls out the gun, trips over a door frame, and accidentally shoots herself. She dies and in the end, Eli take a Molotov cocktail and hurls it into his store. I don’t quite understand why. I know prior to Kamilla’s death, Eli was talking about starting over, maybe selling the place or just leaving it, but with everything that’s happened, you’d think keeping the place open would be more important to him than ever. It’s not like Kamilla would want them to leave. Maybe that’s not what this story’s about. It’s a tragedy, so maybe Eli burned it down because a huge part of what made it what it was, was her, and her blood made it unbearable to set up shop there anymore. That’s what I’m taking away from his actions anyway… so… not an issue anymore. Critical thinking. Who knew?
Overall, the film is great. You can tell there is a great deal of passion and care into it, despite it’s low budget. But for a first time out as both writer and director, Justin Chon deserves some major kudos for his ability to capture character relationships. Sure, it’s nothing particularly new, but it’s endearing enough to make it worth the time. If you get a chance to catch it in theaters, I highly recommend checking this out. It’s limited in its release, so you may have to look for it, but even if you can’t find it, really see if you can rent it or when it’s ready to be streamed.
My honest rating for GOOK: 5/5