L.A. Burning: Justin Chon's 'Gook' revisits tensions between black and Korean communities during 1992 riots

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With all the 25th-anniversary buzz about the infamous Los Angeles riots, little of the focus has been on the Korean community, geographically present at the time, which also suffered heavily. Young actor-turned-director Justin Chon uses the rioting as the backdrop for Gook, his provocatively titled, small but potent story about the friendship between an 11-year-old black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker), and Eli (Chon) who, with his flightier, fun-loving brother Daniel (David So), runs a struggling shoe store left to them by their late father. Eli tries to be the responsible one and also get along with his always enraged, often highly racist neighbors, both black and Korean. He constantly butts heads with another store owner, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director’s father), a typical, conservative older Korean man, who does business but otherwise wants little to do with his African-American clientele. Eli is deeply frustrated most of the time, a feeling that veers towards explosiveness as the outcome of the Rodney King trial is announced and the ensuing violence encroaches.

Chon recently met with Film Journal International to discuss the Samuel Goldwyn release, winner of the “Next” Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Film Journal International: Is the film autobiographical in any way?

Justin Chon: It’s loosely based on my life. My dad had a store in Los Angeles, and we were looted during the riots. But I was only 11, not Eli’s age, during this tumultuous time. The real idea behind this film was Asian-Americans—especially Koreans—being kept off the table in terms of their stories being told. All these other films were being made and I felt that this could be a background to talk about difficult issues, without being literal. I didn’t need to show the rioting—there are documentaries for that.

I wanted to do this through a simple story about the friendship between Kamilla and this store owner, who’s in his 20s, and also an intergenerational story. People tend to think that Asian people are all one side, but between the generations there’s a lot of difference and animosity. It was important that this not be one-sided and to really call that out. It’s not just the African-Americans who are mad, everybody has a right to be angry and everybody’s angry in this film.

FJI: I appreciated it as one of the rare films to address what is happening with young Asians today, not another one of those earnest immigrant sagas.

JC: Yeah, we’ve already seen that. The Joy Luck Club happened twenty years ago, and it’s been done a million times. I don’t want to make another one and, progressing forward, we have these blue-collar kids not going to Ivy League schools. The thing I struggled with was: Do I really want to go into that? How do I tell a story about my world and what I care about? And also to honor those tropes of the immigrant experience from which I came.

FJI: Talk about the actual filming of Gook.

JC: We started shooting in August of last year because I wanted our release to coincide with the anniversary of the riots. I knew I couldn’t compete with the larger productions, so my advantage was that we were smaller and more mobile. I had written several drafts of the script and I originally wanted to make this five years ago. All these other films coming out kicked me into gear.

Originally, Kamilla was a boy, but I thought there were so few opportunities for African-American girls, plus there were so many dudes already in the film. So much testosterone and I thought a female presence would soften things. But Eli and Mr. Kim basically stayed the same, with some adjustments to Mr. Kim, because I didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes of older Asian men.

There were also long talks with my actors about their characters in this environment and some adjustments made there. But Danny was always an R&B singer. In an earlier draft, there was a transvestite who ran the store who causes some problems, but then I phased that out because I felt that if I did that, I needed to dothat film. Likewise, there was more of a side love story between Eli and a lesbian which was never going to happen, with him constantly being teased about it. But, then again, if I’m going to tackle all these issues, it should be about that, and not just cram in all this shit. The core story was always basically about friendship.

FJI: How did you cast it?

JC: Daniel is David So, this entertainer who is on YouTube and does standup. Mr. Kim is my real dad, who was a child actor in Korea. That was the hardest one, because he didn’t want to do it. It took me three months to convince him. He had all these stipulations—like no night shoots. I was like “Dude, who’s your fucking agent? [laughs] I mean, what the hell? You were supposed to be the shoo-in!” Once we started shooting, though, he was fine, and took my direction in that parallel universe of me now being the authority figure. But the drama!

FJI: So Korean.

JC:  Yes, so Korean. But I knew he could do it and I wanted to do a film about his experience and also film with him. For Kamilla, I found Simone in a recreation center in South Central L.A. I had auditioned a lot of actresses, but they were too actress-y, and she had this natural gravitas. In real life, she’s very different from Kamilla, very prissy and feminine, but I liked her energy.

The Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, where I found her, really opened doors for us in the community, and we could not have made the film without them.  A lot of opportunities in my career have been given to me by African-Americans, not Asian-Americans. I don’t mean to dis our community, but when I’ve asked for help, they haven’t been there.

Traditionally, Asians tend to align white or black—white if you’re on Wall Street or want to be an intellectual. It’s half and half. We got a lot of help from the woman who owns the building in which we set the shoe store, originally a tire shop. She was half Asian, half black.

FJI: Why did you shoot in black-and-white?

JC: La Haine. And, no it’s not more expensive than color, it’s cheaper in terms of the set design and clothing. Also, we didn’t have enough money to close off streets, so sometimes you see a Kia in the background, which you don’t notice so much because it’s in black-and-white.

FJI: Talk about your financing.

JC: It basically cost nothing, and was funded in increments by private funding. When I approached the big money, they wanted there to be a white cop or have all the blacks be rappers or singers. One of my backers was French and a big influence was the film La Haine. I said to him, “Dude, you love that movie! Basically, this is the L.A. version of La Haine.”  A huge chunk came from a friend in finance and then we did Kickstarter, an amazing community.

People would ask me what is your opinion about whitewashing, and I’d be like: Why are we talking about that? What’s easier, you wonder—struggle to make your own film or try to change executives’ minds? And why aren’t we supporting our own independent Asian-American directors, who I so support. I’ve been in a ton of their movies, like Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching.

My film went to Sundance and won the audience award, not the jury one. It was the people who voted for it. But even if it didn’t work, it was an opportunity and they don’t come along that often, just to show kids that it can be done. The only thing I can do is make my own stuff, and support myself by making more commercial stuff for others.

FJI: That lack of support for Asian artists by the Asian community makes me crazy in movies, and on Broadway, where Asians flock to see some utter piece of racist crap like Miss Saigon, while a brilliant play like Chinglish by David Henry Hwang languishes to half-empty houses. And did we support an excellent film like Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which basically told my personal story? That character, David, went to USC like you and me. Although, in my day, the cinema school was the funky former stables of the polo team, with Ron Howard in my class whom we all snickered about (“What’s Opie doing here?”). But who went to Spa Night?

JC: Nobody. What I loved about it was that although he was gay, it was really about his family and his own struggle for identity. It came from a place that was very authentic, from the heart, and that was all that mattered.

It brings up this question I’m asked a lot: How do you feel about the image of Asian males and masculinity? There’s a weird trend in Hollywood now of injecting a gay character into every film. I’m all about representation, if it’s a three-dimensional character, but if it’s just some sidekick…? And why does he always have to be Asian?

FJI: Is it the “Entourage” effect?

JC: Could be. And on the flip side of that, they also want to have all these ultra-masculine Asians with huge pecs and six-packs. Okay, if I’m doing Blue Valentine and the character kind of calls for that, but if not, I’m not going to artificially inject some uber-masculine Asian into my story. It’s not authentic and it’s pushing an agenda. I’m not interested in that.

FJI: I’m so interested in your dad. Tell me more.

JC: The truth of it is that my mom’s parents wouldn’t let him marry her unless he gave up his career. Back then, acting was not a profession that was respected. My dad won a local acting competition as a child and went on to win the biggest one in Korea. He then got a contract, which took him everywhere, rubbing shoulders with big shots. Although he hated not being from a rich family, that gave him perspective.

He went into the military and when he got out, it was all about contacts and money and he kind of fell out of love with it. Now, he works seven days a week in his store, and does swap meets on the weekend. He was able to do really well for a while, but he will never make another movie. And as far as going to Sundance or the film’s opening in L.A., forget it.

I tricked him once, and brought him in to do a surprise interview. He got angry, said, “You tricked me!” and refused to do it. He’s a very low-key guy, and he told me, “That was my former life. I don’t want to relive it.” When we finally wrapped, he said, “You’re not allowed to ask me for anything ever again. Don’t ask me for money, nothing!”

FJI: I have to laugh when people ask me what’s the difference between the Chinese, Japanese and Korean people. I say, “The Chinese and Japanese have family, culture, food and money. Koreans have money and food.”

JC: [laughs] That’s a funny thing: Koreans don’t teach their kids about their culture. You know Chris Lee, the producer, in Hawaii? When he fights with his boyfriend, he says, “Okay, Peter, you’re Korean. That’s your culture. I’m Chinese—we are a civilization.”

Some people have said to me, “How come the black men are so angry and acting out in your movie?” That’s what you want to talk about? That’s not my agenda, I didn’t make just the black men angry. Generationally, everyone’s angry.

Or they don’t get this friendship between a little girl and this twenty-something man. How is that so hard for you to fucking understand? On paper, it may be difficult for you, but when you watch the film, it’s no problem.

And if you’re so angry, what are you doing about it? The question should be: Are you actively turning down films and making the projects you really want to? Fingers crossed that when this film comes out, it will make some noise. I think it’s a good film.