(Not rated. 1:34)
Given that the backdrop of “Gook” is an event with unavoidably political implications, it’s surprising how much of the movie seems character based and personal. The film doesn’t try to soft-pedal the racial and economic issues that exploded onto the news pages in Los Angeles in 1992, but it keeps our attention focused squarely on its key players.
The story treats the consequences on a small group of racially mixed characters of the Rodney King riots, which erupted after four Los Angeles Police Department members were acquitted of charges of beating King, an African-American. The incident was captured on videotape and widely viewed; days of upheavals followed, centered in South Central L.A., with more than 50 people killed and more than $1 billion in damage.
“Gook” is set in Paramount, a city in L.A. County with a sizable Korean community, at a time of high tensions between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers. It’s a situation well known to Justin Chon, who wrote, stars in and directed “Gook”: His father owned a shoe warehouse in Paramount that was looted during the riots.
Chon, known to Hawaii audiences for his role in the independent movies “Hang Loose” and his directorial debut, “Man Up,” which were shot in Hawaii, plays Eli, who, as the film opens, is trying to hang on to the dilapidated shoe store operated by his late father, which specializes in women’s footwear, with a mostly black clientele. Helping Eli, sort of, is his portly brother, Daniel (David So), who mainly wants to be a rap singer and whose lackadaisical attitude about the business constantly annoys his sibling.
The brothers acquire an unexpected assistant in the form of Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African-American girl who finds in their shop a refuge from a problematic home life, which includes a hotheaded older brother who is primed for trouble. Although it stretches credibility somewhat, the film presents Kamilla’s relationship with the brothers as benevolent and beneficial to all three.
She has a much different relationship with the older Korean man who runs the liquor store across the street from the shoe store (he’s portrayed by Sang Chon, the filmmaker’s father). His relentless suspicion that Kamilla is stealing from him seems almost like a too easy way to summarize the ill will between many members of the two communities, but later there will be some surprising revelations about this man.
“Gook” is at its best when detailing the interactions of the shoe store trio but strikes a more urgent note when the riots break out and the store comes under threat. The sequence in which Kamilla and the brothers hide out on the store’s roof seems almost borrowed from another movie. The conclusion is a decided letdown, an unhappy mix of melodrama and sentimentality.
The handsome black-and-white photography works well with this story, and there are more affable notes than you might expect from a bare plot description. Yes, it’s uneven, but viewers who can forgive some of its shortcomings will be rewarded, and look forward to whatever Chon might come up with next.