‘Gook’ Review: Indie Drama Offers Korean American POV of LA Riots

In his powerful sophomore film, writer-director-actor Justin Chon explores relations between black, Latino and Korean Angelenos

There’s something wondrous about being in a car wash. For a few stolen moments, real life dissolves into a cool, dark shadow world where splashes and bubbles rain down just inches away from your face but can’t touch you. Soft-tipped whirligigs gently rock your vehicle — which, finally, for a couple of seconds at least, ceases to feel like a self-imposed cage.

In “Gook,” Eli (Justin Chon, who also writes and directs) and his half-sister Kamilla (Simone Baker, “American Horror Story: Roanoke”) take full advantage of their break from the pressures of everyday existence. They forget that Eli’s junker has “GOOK” tagged on the hood and “PUTO” on the trunk door.

All that matters are their cathartic screams as they bang on the windows, look into each other’s eyes, and pop their heads out the windows like carefree dogs as the dryers muffle their frustration. The car wash has no effect on the insults on Eli’s car. But it’s a rare and much-needed chance for release without judgment or violence — the only such opportunity in this film set against the LA riots.

Released 25 years (and some months) after the 1992 civic tumult that followed the acquittal of the four white cops who beat Rodney King, “Gook” ostensibly imparts the undertold Korean-American perspective on the riots. But Chon’s exceptional sophomore feature is both much more and much less. (Chon’s directorial debut was “Man Up.”)

Taking place on the first day of the riots, “Gook” is mostly fair and empathetic in its depiction of the seething mutual resentments between Korean Americans and African Americans that contributed to those six days of explosive anger. But the black-and-white drama firmly declines to explore what the LA riots meant for the Korean Americans of that city. If it’s a history lesson viewers want, they’ll have to look elsewhere.

With “Gook,” Chon offers instead a passionate and affecting allegory of Korean-black relations, as well as a heartrending family saga full of sly humor and the weight of responsibility. At the risk of repeating myself, the story in “Gook” is a highly unrepresentative one for the Korean-American community, and a film like last year’s award-winning “Spa Night” is a much better mirror of LA’s K-town.

But Chon’s dense, ambitious, and observant film is full of impressive craft and insight, capable of wringing at least five different meanings of “f— you,” setting a dance sequence to Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” that reaches pure joy, and showcasing a flurry of sneakers falling in slo-mo that’s as powerful and visually distinctive as anything this year.

Initially, neither Eli nor his brother Daniel (comedian David So) want Kamilla around. The young men are busy trying to keep afloat their father’s shoe store in Paramount, a suburb that calls Compton its western neighbor. The elementary-school-age girl, who lives with her black adult siblings (on her mom’s side), ditches school to be useful to her half-brothers at their shop. She steals a Twinkie from the liquor store across the street — an offense that leads the proprietor, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, Justin’s father), to pull a gun on the little girl in a clear echo of the real-life murder of Latasha Harlins.  

Over the course of the day, “Gook” humanizes nearly every one of its characters: Eli, who wants to keep the store going in memory of his father; Daniel, who dreams of pursuing a career in music; Kamilla, who craves time with her Korean-American siblings as much as with her African-American brother and sister; and Mr. Kim, whose vicious arguments with Eli and Daniel belie his fondness for the brothers. The notable exception is Kamilla’s brother Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr., “Naz & Maalik”), who has his buddies beat up Daniel — and it’s an unfortunate negligence, as that crucial character verges on groundless cruelty toward the film’s not-quite-satisfying end.

The LA riots were an eruption of rage for the black community, but they weren’t the only ones feeling on edge at the time. “Gook” is frequently suspenseful and dread-filled — at times unbearably so — not just because we’re don’t know how the larger violence will intrude on these extremely ordinary existences, but also because “Gook” captures so well the sense of anxiety and besiegement Eli and Daniel feel economically, emotionally, and physically.

Eli is beat up by Latino gangbangers in the film’s opening, and we see both brothers strategically hunched over, choosing to take punches, rather than fight back when they’re outnumbered (which is always). Both brothers are black and blue in the face by mid-afternoon. But true to life, this pocket of Los Angeles isn’t mere racial dysfunction.

Eli and his Latino employee Jesus (Ben Munoz) communicate in Spanglish. Eli teaches Kamilla why the verdict in King’s case is wrong. Daniel collaborates with a local producer on a demo, though the relationship falls apart when Daniel promises he’ll pay at a later date. There are no white characters but three languages. It’s complicated — and quintessentially Angeleno.

But what stays in mind is the craft with which “Gook” leads to its denouement: the astonishing performances (especially by Baker and Cook), Chon’s unshowy visual flair, his cultural observations, his meaty and compassionate ideas, and the mastery of the soundtrack. Throughout the film, the script tactically drops family secrets that keep us reconsidering who these characters are, reminding us of the binds that connect us all.