Twenty-five years ago, riots rocked Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted of using excessive force when arresting Rodney King, a black motorist. Footage of the assault captured by a bystander sparked outrage across the country.
Actor Justin Chon was living in Los Angeles and about to turn 11 years old when those riots broke out. His father, a Korean immigrant, owned a shoe store on the border of East Compton and Paramount that Chon says was looted on the last day of the riots.
“There are those famous pictures of Korean shop owners on their roofs with shotguns, and my dad was one of those guys,” Chon says.
After reading several film scripts about the riots that Chon felt didn’t accurately portray the Korean-American experience, he decided to make his own.
“I just felt if I didn’t make a movie, having experienced the riots and also being personally affected, I would feel really guilty,” he says.
Chon wrote, directed and stars in “Gook,” a film shot in stark black and white that won an audience award when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It also played to a sold-out crowd recently at CAAMFest, San Francisco’s Asian American Film Festival.
Chon says giving the film a name that is often considered a racial slur toward Asian-Americans was a conscious act of reclamation.
“Gook just means ‘country’ in Korea,” he says. “It’s so weird how our word has been turned against us. When you actually know the definition of it, it just takes all the power away.”
The film, which has been compared to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” centers on the friendship between Chon’s character, Eli — a Korean shoe store owner — his brother, and an 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla.
Gook shows Eli and his brother facing attacks from their mostly African-American and Latino neighbors, but their relationship with Kamilla isn’t tinged with the same racial animus.
“She represents the bridge [between communities], innocence and what we lose sight of when we all don’t communicate and fight with each other,” Chon says of Kamilla. “She’s the most resilient one. She’s the one that is always optimistic while everybody else thinks so negatively about everything.”
Chon said his team originally auditioned experienced child actors but felt they were “too polished” for the role they were envisioning.
“That’s when we started calling every single black church in the greater Los Angeles area and every community center,” he says.
They eventually came to the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, where they found Simone Baker, who plays Kamilla.
“When she came in, she just blew me away,” he says.
Chon says he’s proud to have built a film around a black female and Asian-American male character.
“These two demographics are two of the most underrepresented ethnicities in media,” he says. “It was really important to me that this story was told through their eyes.”
Chon says the riots 25 years ago laid bare some real tensions that existed in Los Angeles between the black and Korean communities.
“A lot of Korean businesses went into these neighborhoods and didn’t assimilate,” he says. “We didn’t try to become a part of the community. We just made a lot of money from those neighborhoods, and we didn’t give back.”
Chon hopes his film can provide a way for people to reflect on how race relations in the country have — or haven’t — changed in the past 25 years.
“There’s more tolerance [today], but there also isn’t,” he says. “Right now the country is very divided. It’s a very eye-opening, unique time. That’s why it’s important to create art like this because we can talk about it.”
He says that while race does play an important role in the film, the film speaks to audiences for a different reason.
“It’s really just a story about friendship,” he says. “Anyone can relate to friendship.”