Gook Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So. Directed by Justin Chon. Not rated. Opens Friday at Village Square.
Set on the first day of the 1992 LA riots, writer-director Justin Chon’s Gook is surprisingly upbeat and funny for a movie about such a dark time. Although it eventually takes a very serious (and disappointingly manipulative) turn toward the end, Chon’s film is more celebratory than melancholy, emphasizing the connections rather than the divides among the city’s sometimes clashing ethnic groups. Chon stars as Eli, a first-generation Korean-American who manages his family’s run-down shoe store in the LA suburb of Paramount (which borders Compton). While Eli’s brother Daniel (David So) dreams of becoming a singer, Eli is determined to carry on their late father’s legacy.
That legacy is threatened by the riots, which remain in the background for most of the movie, as Eli and Daniel carry on their daily business. Shooting in black and white, Chon seems influenced by the indie movies released around the time period of his story, most notably Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and, refreshingly, Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Rather than making big political statements, Chon builds a personal relationship between Eli and Kamilla (newcomer Simone Baker), a young black girl from the neighborhood who hangs around the store, to ground the larger conflict in something small-scale and relatable. Revelations about that relationship eventually take the movie into its contrived, disingenuous finale, but until then, it’s a heartfelt passion project that marks Chon as a filmmaker to watch.