http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31293&reviewer=371

Gook

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/28/17 09:08:44

"Bringing what was a side-story on the news to the fore."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: You may feel uncomfortable asking for a ticket for this one by name, and knowing there's a scene that explains the title's etymology may not be much help. It's absolutely worth doing if you get the chance to do so, and if saying the title aloud stops you, then that's what the touchscreen kiosks at the front of the theater are for. It's a pretty terrific little film that does an excellent job of zooming in on what felt like a sidebar to a bigger news story and making it the focus.

It mainly takes place over the course of one day in Paramount, California, but that day is 29 April 1992, the day the verdict came down on the police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King and the community erupted in response. For Eli (Justin Chon), it starts out a little out of the ordinary, as he buys a few pairs of in-demand sneakers off the back of a truck in the hopes that it will give a boost to the struggling shoe store he and brother Daniel (David So) inherited from their father. Just down the street, Regina (Omono Okojie) is telling her baby sister Kamilla (Simone Baker) not to cut class and spend all day hanging around at the shoe store, although that what winds up happening after Daniel intervenes after she tries to shoplift from Mr. Kim (Sang Chon) at the convenience store again. It's not an entirely uneventful day - Eli and Daniel are at odds, and Eli winds up having to explain the word "gook" to Kamilla after some of her brother's associates tag Eli's car with it - but it's set up to be a powder keg.

A lot of Americans like to describe their country as a melting pot, but it's been aptly described as more like a stew than a fondue on occasion; rather than everything winding up together and evenly distributed, you get something chunky, and some of those metaphorical chunks don't always mix well. In this case, it often proves fascinating to observe how the Korean-American community that Eli, Daniel, and Mr. Kim belong to rubs up against the neighborhood's predominantly African-American population; it's hinted the borders have shifted a bit since Mr. Kim and the boys' father arrived, and it's an often-painful truth that, while Eli and Daniel are second-generation and fully-assimilated, the line between assimilation and appropriation changes based upon one's perspective.

It's a situation that allows writer/director Justin Chon to build himself an entertainingly complex role while playing to his strengths, with Eli being built around a sort of defiant responsibility. There's a simmering anger to him through much of the movie - he probably didn't figure on looking after the store, Daniel, or Kamilla - that gets soothed when he's able to fall into a rhythm; he cares about all these things but doesn't want to be bound by them, and it's impressive to watch his frustration and concern compete. David So seems a fair bit more laid-back and comical as Daniel, but there's a vein of genuine hurt there as well. And then there's Simone Baker, a fine discovery as Kamilla, capturing her as a street-smart kid, but the young actress manages to be fairly mindful of what Kamilla doesn't know in a given scene without losing her brashness or confidence. As the film goes on, she does an especially good job of portraying the kid who knows she has to do something but doesn't really grasp the seriousness of what she's getting into.

The chemistry between everyone in the cast is fantastic, right down to the only scene two characters share that nevertheless hints at a ton of history. Chon and the cast do a very impressive job of sketching their characters out so that their relationships and general personalities are clear without a whole lot of laying it out, a useful feel of knowing these characters without them simply being stereotypes. There's also this great sense of how quickly everybody's interactions can change from smooth to frustrated despite how much they all care for each other.

It's also got great black-and-white photography from Ante Cheng, sharp and high-contrast but not grainy. The world darkens nicely as night falls and the lighting changes, allowing the period details to show up but not dominate. Chon uses all of these tools to create genuine nervous tension when called for, creating a small microcosm of the riots that gripped Los Angeles that night on his smaller stage. The final act only has a half-dozen or so people involved, but Chon shows how existing tensions can explode given even seemingly unrelated triggers.

That tension and its later explosion is in large part the product of a great deal of understated sincerity; what good feelings and sentimentality it has in the center being hard-earned rather that just presented as a false idyll. That's an impressive accomplishment in itself, and the whole taken together makes this a movie well worth seeing if a theater doesn't mind putting its name on the marquee.

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