The year after OJ: Made in America premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival—a documentary very much about 1992’s Rodney King Riots in addition to OJ’s life, since the real focus of the documentary is race in America—Gook premiered in Sundance’s Next category during the 2017 festival. The Next category spotlights emerging and under-represented voices and highly innovative films. Gook fits squarely in the first part of that description. The film follows a Korean-American man in South Central L.A. during the Rodney King Riots. It gives an Asian American perspective on an event that is largely seen as black versus white. (The title in indeed a slur used against East and South-East Asians. The title of the film is meant to be provocative. The film also teaches us what the word means – “country,” which provides an extra layer of meaning to the film.)
The Asian perspective is most often left out of our cinemas, except when Asian American filmmakers make movies for broad audiences (the Fast and Furious franchise, Ang Lee, kung-fu films). It’s rare to see a film featuring Asian American characters when their race is integral to the character’s identity. Gook addresses tis head-on.
This is writer/director/star Justin Chon’s second feature. It shows. You can see the seams of this film. In one scene, an actor’s microphone battery pack is clearly seen on her back. An essential plot development is included without reason. The writing is uneven. There are moments that feel like you are watching a school play and someone forgot their line.
However, the more skillful elements of this film outweigh the hiccups. Chon shot the film in black and white to remove the audience’s need to think about the time setting, he said in a Sundance Q&A, but this choice also encourages us to think about the fact that we often see the issue of race in America as a black and white issue. We forget that other “colors” are involved in our multi-racial cultural stew. This is especially true in Los Angeles, where Gook is set.
The black and white cinematography also enables cinematographer Ante Cheng to draw attention to the light and dark areas of the characters’ world. Every window or keyhole becomes an opportunity to show light streaming in to dark spaces much like this film shines a light on an oft overlooked segment of Angeleno society. There are a handful of impressionistic scenes throughout the film, and the light becomes gauzy in these sequences. These scenes point to the possibility of racial harmony, and the romantic light feels just right.
This is all undergirded by an off-kilter score composed not of the more traditional urban music-scapes of rap or techno music. Gook is scored with a mix of woozy orchestral themes and arhythmic atmospheric grooves. This lifts the film from its period and makes the story feel both timely and timeless all at once. Phil McGowan mixed this brilliant score.
As I said, Sundance’s Next category is for emerging talents and under-represented voices. There is enough clever filmmaking here for me to hope Gook grants Chon more opportunities to share his unique perspective. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s worth your attention and time.