By Julianne Hing for CAAM
This interview has been edited for length and clarity by XFINITY.
Justin Chon was just 11 when the L.A. Riots 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 Korean immigrant father owned was looted on the last day.
“GOOK,” which Chon wrote and directed is his effort to make sense of that time as an adult, 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 in the brothers’ shoe store.
“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. But “GOOK” is no polemic. Chon offers up a graceful, intimate portrait of this unlikely family where race isn’t a theoretical abstraction, and “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, and the film screened to a sold-out crowd at CAAMFest in March.
I just finished watching the film—I’m in a very intense headspace.
Justin Chon: Oh man. Just drink a soda.
Yeah, I think I need to do that. Congratulations on the film.
J.C.: Thank you.
Can you talk about your own memories of the riots and what you wanted to do with this film?
J.C.: 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.
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 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. 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?
J.C.: 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. 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.
J.C.: Yup. He’s the liquor store owner. It took me a lot of time to coax it out of him.
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?
J.C.: 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?
J.C.: 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 they were living in the past.
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.
The film is clearly tied to a specific point in time but because you shot it in black and white, can you tell us about that choice?
J.C.: The biggest influence for me was “La Haine“, it’s a movie from the early 90s, and it’s also about these disenfranchised kids. 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.
The Riots are 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.
J.C.: 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?
J.C.: I think it’s relevant. That’s why I pushed to get this film out on the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. 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?
J.C.: 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.
J.C.: 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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