Justin Chon was just 11 when the LA Riots happened. They started on April 29, 1992, after the acquittal of four police officers in the Rodney King case sparked days of fires, protests and violence. The ensuing uprising shut down the city, which was wholly unprepared for the unrest. More than 60 people were killed and more than 10,000 people were arrested. The store that Chon’s own Korean immigrant father owned was looted on the last day.
“The immediate things you worry about at 11 when you have a family crisis are, ‘Does this mean I’ll have to move? Does this mean I’ll have to make new friends? Does this mean I have to change schools?’ Those were my major concerns as a kid,” Chon said.
Gook, which Chon wrote and directed and which premieres in theaters this week, is his effort to make sense of that time as an adult. The film follows Eli (played by Chon) and Daniel, two Korean American brothers who run a struggling women’s shoe store in sleepy, working-class Los Angeles. They begrudgingly take in Kamilla, an 11-year-old African American girl who finds an escape from the stresses of her own life—and in particular the racist older Korean liquor store owner down the street—in the brothers’ shoe store.
But just outside the shop’s doors, the city’s black residents were rightfully seething, and the faultlines in the city were starting to crack. It wasn’t just the Rodney King verdict. In November 1991, six months prior, a Korean convenience store owner named Soon Ja Du was convicted of killing a black teen named Latasha Harlins who Du thought was shoplifting from her South LA store. Du reportedly did not see that while Harlins held an orange juice in one hand, she had money to pay for it in the other. Du received no jail time for shooting the 15-year-old girl in the back.
Gook takes place just as the Rodney King verdict comes in. As the streets start burning, the anger exploding across the city makes its way to the brothers’ store. Neither Eli nor Daniel wants to be where they are, but they’re stuck together. Kamilla’s family, wary of the brothers, can’t stop her from hanging out at the store anyway. Chon explores it all: identity, belonging, obligation, intergenerational conflict, race. But Gook is no polemic. Chon offers up a graceful, intimate portrait of this unlikely family where race isn’t a theoretical abstraction and where “race relations” aren’t just about clashes on the street. The film is by turns sweet and solemn, goofy and shocking, at once loving and unsentimental.
The film has received multiple accolades, including the NEXT Audience Award at this year’s Sundance. He was recently interviewed by Ava DuVernay at a recent Sundance screening. The film screened to a sold out crowd at CAAMFest 2017 in March.
The 36-year-old spoke to the Center for Asian American Media over the phone in the middle of a press tour in the run-up to the film’s release, reflecting on representation, casting his dad in a tough role, and what has and hasn’t changed in the 25 years since the LA Riots.
I just finished watching the film—I’m in a very intense headspace.
Oh man. Just drink a soda.
Yeah, I think I need to do that. Congratulations on the film.
Can you talk about your own memories of the riots and what you wanted to do with this film?
My memories of the riots? I was 11. My memories of the riots were through my eyes of it at 11. But as an adult, you look back at this time and realize things.
Kids are resilient, so you don’t think about how violent and crazy the event was. But as an adult, you look back and you realize, wow, my dad was in real danger. It was a really scary time. That kind of stuff isn’t normal. It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a really gnarly sort of thing to happen.
I’d been acting for a while and over the years I’d auditioned for and read a lot of LA riots scripts, and for me the biggest thing is, none of them do the Korean experience justice. And it’s not represented, in my opinion, in a very honest authentic way.
I mean yeah, it’s very factual. It’s kind of like reporting. They’ll make a story of Eddie, that Korean American guy [Edward Jae Song Lee was shot and killed in front of a pizza parlor he was defending from rioters. His mother saw his photo in the paper and refused to believe it was her son because she remembered him wearing a white t-shirt and the man in the photo had on a dark shirt. It turned out his shirt was soaked through with his blood.]. It’ll be more about the research, and I felt I could offer a perspective which was an insider’s perspective. Even the documentaries that have been made, none of them experienced it firsthand. And our family did. My dad’s business got looted the last day of the riots. It was really important that I bring the Korean-American voice to the table.
How did your dad talk about it when you were growing up? This film is from your perspective as an adult. Do you guys have different understandings of that time?
Well, if you know anything about Korean families, we just don’t talk about it. It’s like it happened and we never talk about it. Nor did I ask. I do remember going to his office after the whole thing happened and opening his desk drawer and seeing a handgun. Stuff like that, where it just passes and it’s something that happened. But as an adult I started asking more questions and when I started thinking of doing this as a project I started really asking.
He was confused. He didn’t understand why I wanted to retell a tragic event. Especially in our family’s history, why I wanted to revisit that. He was really confused about it.
But you also cast your father in the film.
Yup. He’s the liquor store owner. It took him a lot of time to coax it out of him. It took time. It wasn’t like I asked him and he gave me all the information right off the bat. Like, at first he didn’t want to talk about it.
Did you know you wanted to cast your father playing a liquor store owner, knowing you’d be asking him to revisit a very personal and painful time?
My dad was an actor in South Korea from 10 to 25 years old. I grew up watching his black and whites. And I knew he could do it. I did write it for him. I had a backup plan if he wasn’t going to do it, I was going to fly someone in from Korea but we just didn’t have that budget. It came down to it, and he didn’t want to do it, and I had to pressure him for three months to finally convince him to do it.
My dad, he’s a grumpy dude. But I’m still his son and he looks at me like I’m an idiot. I don’t think that’ll ever change.
He was like: what are you going to do? You’re going to make a film about the riots with no money? Are you kidding me? He was really skeptical. But once he stepped on set, he became an actor. He asked the right questions. He had the right input on wardrobe. He approached it like an actor. He had great character questions. He gave me his input, but he listened to me as a director.
It was a really interesting experience because that sort of actor-director dynamic between a father and son who are Asian is a paradox in itself.
The film touches on intergenerational differences within the Asian-American community, and this was playing out in your own life as you were making the film.
Is there something you want to say to Asian American elders, Korean American elders?
Laughs. Yeah, there are a lot of things I’d like to say.
I’m proud to be Asian American. I’m proud to be Korean American. And I’m proud to be Korean. But you know, our parents come to this country and they expect us to stay in this ’70s and ’80s mindset that is even, in their home countries, archaic. It’s like a time capsule. I feel like now, a lot of parents have to, but for the longest time I didn’t feel like they were following the times. We can get deep about this but Korea took Confucianism to the max. Filial piety, respect for elders, all that other stuff. It’s so embedded in the culture and embedded in elders’ pride that as a rebellious teenager I had huge problems with. I had huge problems with my dad, with my mom, anyone who tried to stifle or press me down.
So, it’s like, it is a statement. Not only is this film about interracial turmoil, I’m saying to everybody else who is not Korean. I’m saying: Look. Even within our own ethnicity, we fight. Just because we’re Chinese or Korean or Filipino doesn’t mean we all get along. We have all the same problems and human issues that everyone else has, including relationships with our parents. But, again, in the media it’s sort of a thing where if we have problems with our parents—I’ve done this in films—it’s because oh, I don’t want to be a doctor, I don’t want to be a lawyer. But sometimes it’s just as basic as: I don’t like you. Or, you’re an old man and you don’t understand what I’m going through.
But on the flip side, stepping inside the older generation’s shoes, they’re saying no we do understand. We came from really hard times, we came here for you guys. It’s a very cyclical sort of thing. The intergenerational conflict is just as important as the interracial conflict, in my opinion.
Can we talk about your LA, your southern California? And the aesthetic choices you made shooting it? The film is clearly tied to a specific point in time but because you shot it in black and white, it gives it a timeless quality. Did that have anything to do with why you chose to shoot in black and white?
Absolutely. The L.A. I know now is unrecognizable. I remember we used to go to Koreatown every Sunday to go to the sauna. My sister, my mom would go to the women’s sauna, me and my dad would go to the guys’ sauna, we would spend the whole day in Koreatown, get some Korean food. I remember driving down Olympic toward the 110. There were those indoor swap meets, that actually, that indoor swap meet was a famous landmark for the LA riots because it got looted like crazy. We’d stop by the McDonald’s on Olympic, my dad would get a coffee and you know, I remember even Koreatown Plaza on Western, I won this art competition when I was five and the food court wasn’t even built. The award ceremony was in the food court but it was still not even built, it was all drywall. And you know, the film is how I remember it. It wasn’t as bustling as you think. It’s a lot more dead than you think.
That also has to do with my choice to make it feel like they’re all alone when night time hits. They’re the only ones in the neighborhood. No one is gonna come help them. It was sort of, like, it feels like a Western in a way as well. In an earlier draft I actually had a tumbleweed go across the street. Because it’s like no man’s land. It’s lively, but commercially, in the retail locations, it’s not like New York where shit was happening all day. People would come in and out sparsely. It’s not a bustling metropolitan city.
And, I was born in Garden Grove, those pockets where Korean people set up businesses in the hood, that’s what I remember. That tone is what I felt, that’s what I tried to set up.
The biggest influence for me was La Haine, it’s a movie from the early 90s, and it’s also about these disenfranchised kids. It’s also about a riot because these kids got beat by the cops, and he’s in intensive care, and they’re constantly waiting to see on the news if he’s going to come out of his coma. It was the movie that made Vincent Cassel famous, and he keeps saying, if he dies, I’m gonna go shoot a cop with this gun. That film was shot in black and white.[Gook] has been compared to Spike Lee and you can’t talk about race without getting compared to Spike in the U.S. but my more direct influence was La Haine.
Also, I didn’t want, psychologically, people to spend the first 15 minutes wondering if it was period perfect. I was like, relax, it’s black and white, it’s not 2017. So it was for that aesthetic. The way it feels is the way I remember. That’s how it felt to be hanging out in the neighborhoods.
That time is remembered as one of serious racial tension but you’re very clear about how interwoven people’s lives are and that while there’s interracial tension, there’s also friendship and love.
I wanted a film that represents what it actually felt like. We all coexist in these neighborhoods. And it’s true, these Korean merchants went into the hood, they had Mexican workers, but they were operating their businesses out of African-American communities. It’s realistic. It’s not sensationalized. It’s not like I glamorized anything. It’s really just how it is.
At the same time, it’s just messy. Not everybody’s cordial. They squabble. But they have to coexist. And in that way I guess it is like Spike. In that way, I can put it out there, because you see people having to deal with each other. But for me it’s all about authenticity. Especially now, I love watching superhero movies but with alternative programming like this, I think it’s really important that it’s authentic. I felt like that’s what I was trying to do.
Today we live in the age of Black Lives Matter. A few years ago out here in New York, a young black man named Akai Gurley was shot by a Chinese-American cop named Peter Liang. Does your film have anything to offer this moment that we’re in?
I think it’s relevant. That’s why I pushed to get this film out on the 25th anniversary of the LA riots because 25 years is a good milestone to revisit an event like this and to also see that things really haven’t changed much.
People have access to cell phones now, and I don’t think [police brutality] has gotten worse, I just think it’s more documented. There’s definitely that consideration when I was making the film, but when you watch the film, the main three characters don’t go into the politics and social relevance. It’s just happening. They’re like, man that’s fucked up, this is not good, but they don’t go into depth about it. So it’s very matter of fact. The film, I would like to think, isn’t too preachy. I just try to present it as a story as it would play out rather than me trying to make you think this way or another. If people make correlations to what’s happening now I think that’s a good thing to elicit conversation.
Has your dad seen the film? What does he think of it?
My dad is, like I said, super grumpy. He’s never said I did a good job or anything. But I think he likes it. You know, at Sundance he came, he swore to God he wasn’t going to go on stage. He said he was purposely going to wear hiking gear so he wouldn’t have to. But he was the first one up there. And at the after party he started getting annoyed because I was drinking too much beer, so you know, he’s just going to be my dad forever.
But I know he’s told other people he liked it. I think he’s stoked on it. If I have expectations that he’s going to bow down, that’s impossible.
What you’re saying is you have a classic Asian dad.
Exactly. I can’t get him to come out for anything. I tried to get him to come out for an interview with the LA Times. I tricked him, I told him it was just going to be pictures, and they came out to do an interview, and he wouldn’t do it. He was like, “Naw, I’m not doing it.” I was like. We’re already here, the camera’s set up, just talk, and to the end he wouldn’t do it. We’re doing Sundance in August, and he swears he’s not going to come. I told him how important it was, but he doesn’t give a shit.
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Julianne Hing is a contributing writer for The Nation. She tweets at @juliannehing and blogs at snackhouseblog.com.