Do the Right Thing. There. Most reviews of writer-director Justin Chon’s sophomore feature effort will, at some point, invoke the name of Spike Lee’s still-vital masterpiece of American cinema, because the comparisons are self-evident. Both examine the ever-fragile and often-contentious relationship between different races in hotbed neighbourhoods, both are set during time periods of heightened racial awareness (although Right Thing was made before the Rodney King trial of 1992), both start out as comedy-dramas that slowly morph into heartbreaking tragedies as the narrative progresses, both are often emotionally raw and unvarnished… Chon even takes some stylistic cues from Lee’s work in his integration of dancing sequences, R&B recording sessions, and car-wash trips that have the feel of brief self-contained fantasies in contrast to the grounded and meticulously crafted sense of place of the rest of the film. It would only be a matter of time before you had Right Thing jump into your brain as a reference point; I’m just getting it out there immediately.
Loathe as I am to jump into the pile, Gook really does bring those Do the Right Thing comparisons upon itself. That said, if one must be compared to something, then there are a lot worse things to be compared to, as, whilst Gook never evens tease at matching the quality of Lee’s all-timer, it still manages to hold its own rather than diminishing upon a comparison. Primarily, that’s down to Chon being canny enough to invoke Right Thing in spirit, but not in total form or overall intent. Lee’s film is a vast, complex work that’s always having to keep both eyes on the personal story of the characters and the overall messages about race and race relations that, particularly in its closing moments, invoke nothing less than America’s entire racial history towards Black people. Gook, however, is much more of a personal and character-driven tale, albeit one fuelled by racial anger. It’s set against one of the most racially-heated moments of the 90s, but it’s more interested in the personalities and lives of the 3 characters at the centre of its narrative than diving head-first into the relationship between African-Americans and Korean-Americans.
Those characters are Korean-Americans Eli (Chon), his brother Daniel (David So), and 11-year-old African-American Kamilla (Simone Baker). Eli and Daniel operate a women’s shoe store in the predominately African-American populated Paramount district of Los Angeles, struggling to make ends meet in order to keep the store open. Eli is desperate to make sure the shop stays open, Daniel has aspirations of being an R&B singer, and both are constantly at risk of being jumped by both Blacks and Latinos that reside in the neighbourhood. Kamilla, meanwhile, frequently ditches school to go hang out with the pair of them and help out at the store, finding a sort of family in them both that she just can’t get from her own, being left in the care of often-distant brother Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.) and sister Regina (Omono Okojie).
Excepting the final scene, Gook entirely takes place over one day: 29th April 1992, the day of the Rodney King trial verdict. Characters are frequently seen tuning in to the news, letting it play in the background on the radio, expressing their disgust at the litany of “not guilty” charges, and the ensuing riots being announced as “free shit South Central.” It’s a day of heightened racial tension and anger, eventually spilling over briefly outside of South Central to Paramount, but it’s largely just a backdrop that snaps the themes of the film into sharper focus. The racial epithet that makes up the film’s title is graffitied onto Eli’s car well before the verdict comes in, and Eli spends the film sporting a shiner he receives from being jumped by a Latino gang in the first scene. Fact is, even with today being extraordinary, there’s little difference in the strength of the racism Eli and Daniel have to deal with.
Gook indeed features sequences of our protagonists being jumped, conned, harassed, and racially insulted – particularly from Keith, who harbours an especially strong hatred of Koreans that he’s attempting to instil in Kamilla – but it largely presents them rather than fully exploring them. That is for the best, since the few times that insights about the troubled relationships between African-Americans and Korean-Americans fully intersect with the film’s narrative come off as a bit dramatically hokey; there is indeed more that connects our central cast of characters than just geographical proximity. Far better handled are the themes about the need for our cast to have things; money, homes, businesses, even just the Walkman on some poor guy not of your race who happened to luck into taking the wrong turn at the wrong time. How being stuck at the bottom of America’s ladder breeds a need to own, and a fierce protectiveness in what few things you do have above most else. It’s clear, for example, that Eli is quietly just as discontented as Daniel openly is about being stuck selling women’s shoes in a garbage neighbourhood, but that he is also scared shitless about losing the one thing he and his deceased dad definitively own.
There’s also a generational bent in there, with the brothers and their store operating across the street from a convenience store run by Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, Justin’s father). Eli and Daniel are sons of immigrants, embracing Black culture, and trying their hardest to ingratiate themselves into a pair of communities that largely distrust and are often outright hostile towards them – and, again, this is all before the Rodney King riots created fissures that, to this day, still have not healed. By contrast, Mr. Kim is an immigrant, cares little for being liked by his customers, and pointedly refuses to speak English to other people. Eli and Mr. Kim frequently butt heads, but, when things start to go really bad, the pair are also capable of being civil, with Mr. Kim even coming something close to a legitimate support system for Eli in a way that he is otherwise unable to experience due to his nature as an outsider to the community.
These are themes that are better woven into the narrative and more fully-explored because they play to Gook’s character-driven nature. Whilst the film does build well to its tragic finale, aside from a few beats that make the film a touch too self-contained, Gook is mainly at its strongest during its first half, because it’s able to spend so much time letting Eli, Daniel, and Kamilla interact with each other. It’s a friendship and dynamic that seems weird on paper, but in practice they all slot together like life-long friends who just love each other’s company. The film most demonstrates this through a dance set to Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” but the dynamic for me was best encapsulated very early on, when Kamilla is first sent away by Eli, due to her skipping school again, only for Daniel to have her run around the back, grab a broom, and then walk back in sweeping to no protest from Eli. There’s just a genuine, sweet bond between the three, and these early scenes feel especially confident and assured thanks to the chemistry and strong performances by Chon, So, and Baker.
That said, I wish Chon was even more confident in these early sequences, because his shifts to drama before the second half fully kicks into gear end up really jarring. When characters in Gook want to argue, they go at it full bore, with every blow-up feeling positively nuclear, even before the riots kick off. Comic sequences can flip to characters screaming and throwing objects on a dime, and the resultant switches back to low-energy hang-out sequences only exacerbate the disconnect. In a way, it makes sense: Gook’s characters are tired of being constantly shat upon and erased, and a film with a racial slur for a title was never going to be one for calmly waiting in line for a turn that’s unlikely to come. But it means that the drama suffers as a result. The film’s ending is still brutal and tearjerking, as intended, but I can’t help feeling like it could have hit like an incredibly vital megaton bomb had Chon been able to better manage and control the ferocity of his dramatic sequences in the largely-lighter first half.
Still, Gook is a damn strong watch, and its messiness may ultimately be the point. Chon is grappling with a lot, here, and if his reach can at times exceed his grasp, then he is at least able to make up for those times with strong characters, all-round great performances, and a striking visual style – this is the first time in a long while where I haven’t been annoyed by a film deliberately being shot in black-and-white for no immediate reason. As a whole, it is fingertips away from a greatness that it could definitely have achieved with a touch more refinement of its anger and voice. But, then again, when you are constantly being beaten down and jumped by a society you are trying so hard to be a part of but which is refusing to grant you that privilege, screaming “fuck you” at them, and anyone else who crosses you, is somewhat understandable and mighty cathartic.
Gook is playing in select UK cinemas now and will be available on DVD & Digital on 9th April.