Interview with Justin Chon, writer, star, director of Gook

gook justin chon
Sundance has long been a launching pad for fresh voices in filmmaking. And nowhere is this more apparent than in their Next category, a showcase for new talent. At last year’s festival, the Next Audience Award for best film in the category went to Justin Chon’s deeply personal film, Gook. This film retells a day in the life of Eli (Chon), the owner of a small women’s shoe store in Los Angeles, his friend Daniel (David So), and Kamilla (Simone Baker), a young black girl from their neighborhood who helps out at their store. That day just also happens to be the day of the Rodney King verdict. An event that shook Los Angeles to its core, and brought to the forefront the long simmering racial tensions that pervade the diverse city. Gook is a both an intimate portrayal of friendship and familial bonds (both of the blood and non-blood variety), as well a meditation on race relations in America. For a movie that is set 25 years in the past, Gook couldn’t feel more timely.

I spoke with writer/star/director Chon about his experiences in making Gook.

What inspired you to write such a specific film about a very infamous moment in Southern California’s history?

I always thought it would be a great story to tell from the Korean perspective, but not in the traditional narrative where we are storeowners protecting our stores from looters. I didn’t want to create another piece that separates and polarizes Koreans from society. I wanted to create something that brings us together. And it being the 25th anniversary [of the riots], I didn’t see any films that authentically shared the Korean experience.

We want to show that race relations between blacks and Asians weren’t very great. But also those intergenerational relations between Asians aren’t any better. This film is just as much an African-American film as it is an Asian-American film. You see the family dynamics of blacks and Asians. The film is not heavy handed. I’m not trying to tell you what to think in terms of so and so is right and so and so is wrong. Everyone is wrong in some way and I don’t pass any judgment on anything.

The essence of the story is about friendship. It rides the line between drama and comedy. It’s equal parts heartbreaking, but also funny. Audiences should experience a full range of emotions. It speaks to everybody. Everybody knows what it’s like to have a friend, and also to have people not want you to be friends with you. It’s human.

What are your memories of the Rodney King riots? How did they affect you or people in your family?

I have a very personal experience with the riots. We owned a store in Paramount and we got looted. I remember it very vividly in terms of watching the news footage and watching my dad just get up and leave for the store. He didn’t explain anything. I remember seeing Reginald Denny getting pulled out of the car, seeing Korean people on the roofs of their stores.

Simone Baker is pretty great as Kamilla. What was the process like both casting her and shooting the movie with her?

At first, I auditioned a lot of polished actresses, and they were just way too rehearsed. I needed someone more raw and real. Through a recommendation, we found her at an arts center in South Central.

The first moment I spotted her, I knew she had the right energy. We did some readings with her and she was like gold. She was like magic. We rehearsed for about a month and a half, so by the time she was on set, she was ready to fly.

When we’re with Kamilla, we have to understand why she’s drawn to the store. But to her, there’s magic there. But when Eli’s by himself, it’s bleak. But her world is optimistic and she hopes for the best. She asks questions, she’s curious. Everyone should go just to watch her to be honest.

The character of Kim, a local convenience store owner, is played by your dad. And your scenes towards the end are some of the more heartfelt in the movie. How was it acting alongside your dad and directing him?

It took some time to convince him to do the movie. He had a lot of stipulations. He didn’t want to do night shoots and he wanted to pick his own wardrobe. But once we got him, he treated me with respect as a director. It was a very special experience.

Your movie title is pretty inflammatory in that it just puts a word out there that is a pretty offensive slur you could say to a Korean. Did you always know that this was going to be the title of your film?

Absolutely. And here’s the logic. It’s not meant to be offensive. The word originated from the Korean War. Me Gook means America. And broken down it means beautiful country. And people took a beautiful word and made it ugly. There’s a pivotal point in the film where Eli is speaking with Kamilla about the word, and he can choose to perpetuate the cycle by teaching her hate by telling her the racial slur meaning of the word or tell her the literal meaning. And to me, that was a huge statement and it also says a lot about Eli. When it comes to teaching his friend what it means, he’s not going to tell her the derogatory term. He tells her the literal definition that comes from the actual language.

You grew up in Irvine and as the son of two Asian parents. I can personally attest to the generally strong encouragement to pursue a more traditional career (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.). How did your parents react to your choice to pursue a career in Hollywood?

I wasn’t exactly the easiest kid growing up. My sister always did the right thing. I didn’t always do the right thing. But I was just really fortunate with my parents. They never pressured me to be something I didn’t want to be. They didn’t even specifically say, “You have to go to college.” They didn’t push me in one direction or another.

What is your opinion on the various whitewashing controversies around Asians in Hollywood? Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, etc.

There is a place for people to talk about it and complain about it. But you’re talking about a system where you’re asking them to change from the top down. You can go to your legislature and try to change the laws, but how likely is that? You’re trying to change the minds of people whose bottom line is money, and you’re trying to talk to them about representation. If you’re going to make a fuss about it, it needs to be done at the box office. That’s where it needs to happen. We need to vote with our wallets. If Asians decide where to spend our money collectively, then we are very powerful. It’ll eventually start to shift, but I don’t expect it to happen in a year or two.

Do you have any upcoming plans to act, direct, or write?

I’m in a TV show called Deception in the fall. I’m also doing a book adaptation of the New York Times Bestseller, Counting by Sevens. And I’m writing a surf road trip film in the vein of Y Tu Mama Tambien with Sal Paskowitz. but the problem that I’m most interested in is international adoption. I don’t know if you’ve seen news of these people who lived here 40 years, and because their parents didn’t do all the proper paperwork, they are being deported. I hope that’s my next project.

Gook releases in theaters on August 18th

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Brian Chu
Brian Chu 221 posts

Brian Chu is a Staff Writer for Nerd Reactor and aspiring Jeopardy contestant. He thinks Picard is the best captain, Cumberbatch is the best Holmes, Bale is the best Batman, and Tennant is the best Doctor. Follow him @chumeister