Blog Directory CineVerse: Love is colorblind

Love is colorblind

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Released in 2017, the controversially titled Gook is an independent film helmed and written by Justin Chon that provides a different ethnic POV on racial tension. Set amidst the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the narrative centers on Kamilla, an 11-year-old African-American girl (Simone Baker) who befriends Eli (played by Chon) and Daniel (comedian David So), two Korean-American brothers grappling with the challenges of running a struggling shoe store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. As the riots intensify, the characters confront their own biases and the intricate web of racial dynamics in their locale.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Gook is noteworthy on several fronts. First, the story occurs over a single day, giving us a snapshot of what it was like to be near the epicenter of a racial tinderbox. Second, for a film concerned with race matters, there are no consequential white characters. The conflicts that erupt in the story concern the non-white residents of this Los Angeles neighborhood (with three main ethnicities represented and their respective languages spoken), although every significant character is impacted to some extent by the verdict in the trial of four LAPD officers who had beaten Rodney King; on the day this film’s narrative is set, the four were acquitted in court, which triggered riots throughout parts of Los Angeles, including Koreatown. After the riots subsided, the death toll was 63, with 2,383 individuals injured, over 12,000 arrested, and property damage estimates exceeding $1 billion.

Third, the film was shot in monochrome, which is perhaps thematically appropriate considering its black-and-white racial subtext and the invocation of a bygone time (1992) when many TV sets, especially in poorer homes, were still devoid of color.

While the tone throughout is primarily tense, ominous, and pessimistic, Gook is graced with timely moments of levity and elation, as in the unexpected scenes when the shoe store is quickly converted into a poor man’s discotheque and Eli and Kamilla clown through a car wash. The movie seesaws between these tonalities, helping to relieve the pressure on audiences otherwise perturbed about three vulnerable characters we care about. Sadly, the film ends in tragedy and with no clear resolution for Eli and David.

Gook shows how, even when whites aren’t present, racism between minorities can exist and that it’s not simply a black-and-white issue. It’s fitting that this narrative occurs entirely on one day: April 29, 1992, the day of the Rodney King verdict and the first day of the L.A. riots that occurred in its wake. This is a microcosm story within that larger story about systemic racism and its consequences.

Possibly the most significant takeaway is that love is colorblind. Eli and Daniel, two South Koreans who are resented and harassed by Blacks and Latinos in their neighborhood, treat Kamilla, a Black girl, like family. She feels the same about them, preferring to spend more time at their store and among the brothers than at home or school. These three characters prove that love, harmony, and peace are possible in mixed neighborhoods and among different races. We also see how enamored and respectful Eli and Daniel are of Black culture; they both adopt a similar vernacular, Eli expresses how the Rodney King verdict was unfair, and Daniel aspires to be an R&B singer. While many characters are prejudiced against the Koreans, others, like their employee Jesus, aren’t.

This is also a “don’t judge a book by its cover” morality tale. Adjacent shop owner Mr. Kim incites Eli’s anger for accusing Kamilla of stealing and pointing a gun at her. Later, he becomes a more empathetic figure when he gives Daniel a ride and explains how he and Daniel’s father had a strong bond, shared military background, and business relationship. The presence of Mr. Kim helps bridge generational divides, as well: He’s old enough to be Daniel and Kim’s father and exhibits many of the traits and mindset they despise in the previous generation, yet they find common ground toward the end.

If you, like Eli, have ever felt like a stranger in your own community, this film will resonate with you. Film critic Alison Willmore wrote of Eli, “he’s an observant insider as well as an unwelcome outsider, wanting to belong to the neighborhood but forever seen as apart from it.”

Gook is also a rumination on discovering diamonds in the rough, teaching us that beauty and joy can be found in even the unlikeliest of places – including the dangerous neighborhood of Paramount, California, not far from South Central L.A. Consider how Kamilla wears a flower and bestows it upon Eli; how Eli, Daniel, and Kamilla spontaneously dance to the Hall & Oates’ hit Maneater; and the blissful scene involving Eli taking Kamilla on a ride through an auto carwash.

Similar works

  • Do the Right Thing
  • Clerks
  • Boyz in the Hood
  • Detroit
  • Kicks
  • Waves
  • La Haine
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Spa Night

Other films by Justin Chon

  • Man Up
  • Ms. Purple
  • Blue Bayou

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