Of all the obstacles faced by Justin Chon in making “Gook,” a film for which the very title promised no easy road to the big screen, the most stubborn might have been the closest to home. The actor/writer/director wrote the story of a friendship between Eli and Daniel, two Korean-American brothers running a shoe store in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount and a young African-American girl named Kamilla, who spends her afternoons at the store for fun, on the eve of the L.A. riots, with his father Sang in mind to play the owner of the liquor store across the way. Well aware of his father’s days as the ”Macaulay Culkin of South Korea,” but never having seen it up close since Sang had put that life behind him when he moved to the States to start his family and a new life, Chon was adamant about his dad’s participation. Still, Sang had no desire to return in front of the cameras, not necessarily because he was averse to learning lines again, though he wasn’t exactly looking forward to that part, either. Instead, it was because he’d have to revisit his second career — as a shoe salesman whose store was looted during the riots.
“I told [my father] about the film and he was really confused. He was like why do you want to go back to that? Why do you want to revisit a traumatic time in our history? We’ve gotten past that,” Chon recounted recently, following a screening of the film at the Sundance NEXT Fest. “It took a while and I made him understand this is an opportunity for education, this is an opportunity to humanize people and to look back at that.”
After three months of pleading, Sang gave in, albeit with the stipulations that he could pick his own wardrobe and that his son would never ask for another favor again, but when he stepped onto set, he likely realized what audiences will – that Chon’s film may be set in the past, but lives in the present and personal in ways completely unrelated to the experience his family had, but the moment he’s living in right now.
“if you notice, Kamilla in the story is 11 and I was 11 when the riots happened,” Chon told me recently. “And on a bigger thematic [level], Daniel is trying to have this impossible dream that mirrors me as an actor trying to make it in Hollywood, and Eli is just trying to hold his shit together and support his family and keep it going and that’s how I feel now with my own family. These are just human things and at the end of the day, [this film is] about human needs.”
And perhaps that’s why “Gook” resonates so deeply, informed by its setting but not beholden to it as you spend 24 hours with Eli (Chon), Daniel (David So), and Kamilla (Simone Baker) at what unwittingly will be a turning point in their lives. While the acquittal of the four officers responsible for the Rodney King beating is reported on the local news on April 29, 1992, the three are slinging high heels to picky customers at a lonely store in between Compton and Bellflower, seemingly creating a cocoon over their own where they can dance to Hall & Oates when the shop is empty and free themselves of the associations made with them because of their skin color. Chon breaks the film free of its chronological bearings by shooting it in black-and-white and filling the air with a neoclassical score, but just as the characters are pulled back into reality any time they’re outside the store, so to is the film as anger simmers on the streets from resentment that existed long before the riots brought it to the fore, not only between different races, but different generations who see the world through vastly disparate prisms of experience.
In the struggle to understand each other, Chon brings out the beauty in viewing an event that most audience members will be familiar with, but through various perspectives in a way that each side will be seen anew and understood. Having read for various parts as an actor in projects about the riots, Chon saw an opening to share a viewpoint he wasn’t seeing in the scripts as a Korean-American and in the process, made a confident and dreamlike film that also distinguishes him as a unique storyteller. With the film arriving in theaters this week after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Chon spoke about how he created a film with such a distinctive tone, the responsibility that comes with making a film set during this moment in time, and the community that grew around the film.
Out of this setting, how did this scenario come about?
There’s a bunch of other L.A. Riots films [that were being produced] and I felt like if I didn’t [make a film] from the Korean point of view, it would get lost and the opportunity would be gone. In terms of storyline, I didn’t want to make a film that was preachy or skewed one way or the other, but that was more matter of fact and you get to choose what you think. Also, I didn’t want to make a film that’s going to continue to divide, so I created Kamilla’s character as a bridge between two communities that historically were not getting along, and also show the intergenerational conflict [amongst the individual cultures] as well. We only think about these things as black and white or black and Asian, they don’t get along. But we never sit down and think well, do they get along amongst themselves? [laughs] It’s not a simple situation and that’s where the story came from. We all are just trying to figure things out and we’re all think we’re right, but we’re all wrong.
Tonally, did you know what this would be from the start? Magical realism isn’t probably the most accurate way to put it, but there are pockets in the film for lighter moments like a dance sequence and the car wash that have a slightly heightened quality in the reality that’s reflected.
I know what you mean by magical realism and that is what I was trying to do, but if you notice, those magical realism points happen only with Kamilla. The film as it is is very neorealistic. Just verite, a lot of handheld and moving masters and stuff, but because there is an 11-year-old involved, she is the levity of the film, because you can’t get that mad or crazy if there’s an 11-year-old there, and tonally, some people might not think it’s consistent, but for me, emotionally, it is [when] you see what Kamilla’s going through.
With the score, I designated different instruments to different characters. When you listen to Eli’s score, it’s piano-heavy and a lot of melancholy. And Daniel is just all over the place, and you can tell [Kamilla’s] is very whimsical, very French-inspired, and I really needed to have the audience feel why Kamilla likes to hang out at the store. Otherwise, it’s very arbitrary. It’s like oh yeah, she likes to hang out with these Korean guys, which to me is inauthentic, but if you show how magical this place can be for her, then it makes sense why she wants to hang out there. And that’s the thing about life. It’s not just all drab. There’s also fun moments in the midst of chaos and tragedy.
You’ve said the character that became Kamilla actually started as a boy. Did you change it when you met Simone?
It changed with the script. I just felt that here’s a film that I’m making and I’m going to make it outside of the system, so I get to do what I want and it’s about underrepresented demographics, so let’s take it further. We already have too much testosterone in the film, so one day it just dawned on me, let’s make Kamal Kamilla. A woman adds a different sensitivity and dynamic to the story and the most underrepresented demographics [are] African-American females, Asian-American males, so it was my opportunity to tell a story with characters you usually wouldn’t see have the opportunity.
Given how important representation is to you, how did you get the African-American side of the equation to the point where you felt comfortable?
I could never say that I understand what it is to be African-American in this country because I’m not black. The only thing I can do is try to talk a lot with the community and people that were there during the riots. Ultimately, this story is through my lens, the lens of an Asian-American man, but the biggest thing I did, at least for Keith’s character [Kamilla’s older brother, played by Curtiss Cook Jr.], was if he’s going to be angry, I have to justify that. He can’t be angry for no reason or angry at the system because the angry black man’s a very stereotypical archaracter, so I had to make sure that things weren’t arbitrary choices, hence there’s [specific narrative] reasons why he’s angry and should be. But if you notice everyone’s angry – everyone’s angry in the story and has a right to be. Nobody’s more right than the other and that was the biggest thing was I didn’t want to make it seem like anyone’s a bad guy.
What was it about Simone for Kamilla?
What I was looking for, rather than looking for a tomboyish, rough and rugged, resilient little girl [like Kamilla], was the energy of Simone [who’s] very womanlike – her favorite color’s pink. She didn’t know how to skate before this film. But it was her energy. She’s so gravitational, so likable and so bright and open that that was more important and then the rest we worked on. But she brought a lot to it that I didn’t [expect]. We spent a lot of time together and that what was the most valuable because it just created a natural intimacy.
Originally, I was hoping that I could get [another] actor to play Eli, but for budgetary reasons, it was just cheaper to [play the role myself], and it was awesome because it created a shorthand [when] I rehearsed with all the actors and when we showed up on set – we did close to two months of rehearsals – they were acting with me, not somebody else, and I could give them directions right then and there. If the camera’s not on me, I could change my performance [too] to elicit a different performance, so there was some convenience. The inconvenience was I didn’t get to see my own performance, so I had to rely on my [cinematographer] and he didn’t give me direction, but if he thought it wasn’t there, then he’d say let’s go again, so I would adjust myself and get a few different takes and I had options in the editing room. I was very exposed, which is fine, but as far as directing and acting, for the other actors, I thought it was great.
Was there any significance to the locations you chose?
I wanted it to be a standalone building because I was going to burn that fucker down. [laughs] But I didn’t want other businesses attached to that building – I wanted it to be their burden and if they lose it, only they lose it. It’s just more potent because it’s such a contained, intimate story. In terms of actual scouting, it was shot in Gardena, between Compton and Inglewood, and it was the only building I could find that had that much land, but [also] was safe enough for a child actor because we were shooting nights. You [also] had the liquor store across the street, so logistically, it made sense, but the inside of the liquor store wasn’t shot in that liquor store. We shot the interiors near downtown L.A.
You’re always conscious of when the film is set, but aesthetically, both visually and with the musical choices, you free it from those markers. How did the style of the film come about?
It was important to me that we played against the grain because I feel that’s how you keep the audience engaged and interested and it creates this oddity as well that makes you feel like okay, I’ve never seen this and I think I know what this film is, but maybe I don’t.
A big influence [visually] for this film was “La Haine,” so I brought all these comps like “Ida” and “A Coffee in Berlin,” all these black-and-whites that are more recent, and the first time [my cinematographer and I] actually started talking about the look, he brought frames of “Schindler’s List” and it was really interesting because I had not thought about that. We wanted to use harsh, natural lighting and shape it. It was really important to him that we had vintage glass. We ended up using Kowa lenses [because] he really wanted to shoot anamorphic, which I was totally onboard with, and I wanted to shoot on digital and transfer it to 16. The cost of that was even too much for a small film like ours, so we did some tests with digital grain and that’s how we pulled off the film [look]. We also talked about how much do you push the grain and not push the grain. I saw a version where the grain was very heavy, and I was like, “Let’s scale it back,” so it’s in the subtlety.
[With the music] I think what you would automatically assume is that it’s going to be hip-hop, but that’s their environment. That’s not how they feel. So when it’s coming out of car speakers, yeah, it needs to be hip-hop or R & B because that’s of the time, but in terms of the actual score, it was important [to accentuate] what they’re actually going through and we used a live 12-piece orchestra to record it, which I’m so thankful to my composer Roger Suen [for] because he gave up his fee to pay for that. I gave him some tracks that I put in that were close to what I wanted and he was able to just take it to the next level.
If your composer is reducing his fee, and I couldn’t help but notice Pine & Crane in the credits as one of the caterers, which seems like they did special for you since they aren’t known for that, and I get the feeling a real community sprung up around the film to support it. Was that actually the case?
You’re absolutely right. And we didn’t have Pine & Crane every day. [laughs] But one of our co-producers, her dad owns a restaurant, so a lot of that food was catered by her, which was completely amazing and I’m so thankful because a lot of people really did come together and support us – Pine & Crane, Fishbowl…you know, Shaw with the VFX – all these people saw that there was merit in the film and it took an entire community to make this happen because we just didn’t have the money. Making a film this specific and authentic, it’s really hard to get a studio to give you the right amount, so you really need everyone to chip in and they did. That’s the most uplifting thing about this film is there are people out there that want to help and people see the value in storytelling when it’s authentic.
What’s it been like seeing that same reaction from audiences on the festival circuit?
It’s been amazing because here’s this film made by an Asian-American writer/director and with a cast that’s mostly Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American and the fact that it resonates with people is the ultimate validation that people want to see these types of stories. That goes from Sundance to Munich. People are moved by the film and I still can’t believe it’s gotten this much attention. I just hope that when it goes out into theaters people continue to support it and that it’s a film people stumble upon even 10 years from now and enjoy. I also hope it’s a step in the right direction for Asian-American and diverse representation [overall] in film.
“Gook” opens on August 18th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Regal L.A. Live and expands on August 25th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.