Justin Chon in a scene from Gook Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films © 2017 Birthday Soup Films, LLC (from Vogue.com)
Last Wednesday, July 25th, was the Opening Night of the 40th Asian American International Film Festival. The event was held at Asia Society, a home for contemporary Asian artworks and events in Midtown Manhattan. We were showing Justin Chon’s full-length film, GOOK.
You may know Chon as the “Asian guy from Twilight.” But since playing his role as Eric Yorkie, Chon has become a Sundance Award-Winning filmmaker.
Made in 2017, GOOK’s release year marks the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots/Saigu (pronounced “sah-ee-goo” and meaning April “2-9.”)
From NBC News “With ‘Gook,’ Justin Chon Tells an LA Riots Story That Hits Close to Home”
“The initial kernel [for Gook] happened because my dad had a business in Paramount, and we got looted on the last day of the riots,” says Chon (Vogue).
Set in Paramount, California in 1992 the film conveys the racial tensions, neighborhood violence, and societal unrest that occurred in the Los Angeles area surrounding the Rodney King verdict.
The film captures the troubled time time through the lenses of a Korean-American shoe salesman Eli (Justin Chon), his brother Daniel (YouTube comedian, David So), and a 11-year-old black, truant, Kamilla (Simone Baker). Their interracial friendship stands out, as most of the other minorities living in Orange County discriminate against Asian-Americans.
In Asian American Dreams, Helen Zia defines Saigu:
“Everything about life changed for Korean Americans on April 29, 1992. When the smoke cleared from the three-day uprising in Los Angeles, 54 people had died and some 4,500 shops were reduced to ashes. More than half of the destroyed or damaged businesses were Korean-run. Each shop represented at least one extended family. Tens of thousands of Korean Americans lost their livelihoods and years of sweat and equity that day” (Zia, 171). This event was a turning point in Asian American history. Korean Americans became targets of blame and anger. This sentiment was not instigated by the Rodney King case verdict, but was the tipping point for the pent up frustration that had grown in these communities where race relations between Asians and blacks had been tensing for some time.
This racial prejudice stemmed from a distrust and misunderstanding of one another. “To many African Americans, the Korean American storekeepers were a maddening reminder of chronic poverty and economic injustice in the black community, while yet another immigrant group was advancing, at their expense” (Zia, 174). There were also multiple instances of violence of both parties toward the other. In 1991, Korean-American storeowner Soon Ja Du fired a gun at 15-year-old, black Latasha Harlins when Latasha had put a bottle of orange juice in her backpack before paying for it. That same year, Sam Park killed Arthur Mitchell at Chung’s Liquor Market. Shortly after these incidents, a Korean girl working her parents’ shop was murdered, the gunman shouting “This is for Latasha” (Zia, 178).
For these reasons and more, when the verdict was announced that the four white officers who had beat Rodney King, a black taxi driver, to death were deemed not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, the 1992 riots began.
The film also makes a marked point of explaining the LAPD’s failure to stop these riots. As Helen Zia stated, “As stores were looted and torched, Korean Americans desperately called 911 for assistance. But the LAPD let South Central, Koreatown, and the inner-city core burn.” This chaos was aptly depicted in the film.
Illustration by Angel Trazo
In an early scene, Eli’s (Justin Chon) cream-colored car is vandalized with black spray paint. The word GOOK defaces the hood. Kamilla asks him what Gook means.
“It means ‘country’ in Korean.”
“How do you say ‘America’?” Kamilla asks.
“That one’s my favorite— Me Gook.”
In an interview with Vogue, Chon explained that he used the slur as his title “to reclaim the word and start a conversation of why that word has turned against us.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he elaborated, “In the film, I explain how that word actually means “country” in Korean. Hangook is Korea, Chingookis China, and Migook, which breaks down to “beautiful country,” is America. The title wasn’t meant to be for shock factor. That’s really what encapsulates that time: the racism, the implosion, but also the irony of the whole situation. Had I not explained it in the film, it’d be a really terrible choice. But it’s a huge turning point in the story. When people say it, I want people to feel uncomfortable. And if they don’t feel uncomfortable, then at least if you watch the film, you have an explanation of what it’s about. While I was filming, the younger millennial people didn’t know what the hell it was. They were all pronouncing it wrong, which maybe is a good thing, that it’s not even in their vernacular.”
“There is importance in people of color telling our stories,” Jen Kim, the Marketing & Outreach Manager of AAIFF40 and one of the night’s hosts, announced to the crowd of over 260 attendees. It was a full house— every seat was occupied with paid ticket holders, press, artists, and members, and volunteers and staff flanked the theater’s walls.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you…” she said, quoting a phrase from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. She also said, “The danger of a single story is that they make one story become the only story.” These quotes beautifully encapsulated the importance of the Asian American Internationals Film Festival. It is a space that makes Asian-American visions seen, where artists can share their stories and make them accessible to the wider community.
In her book, Asian American Dreams, Helen Zia wrote, “As Asian American communities become more visible and less marginal in American society, it will also become more “acceptable” for Asian American celebrities to show their support.” Though written, now, seventeen years ago, her prediction remains just as true to this day. This is exactly what Justin did when he took the stage.
As he began speaking to the audience that had gathered at Asia Society that night, Justin wanted the Asian-American community to know that he will be vocal about making Asian-American stories known in Hollywood. He said to the crowd that he did not want the film industry to see him in it as a complacent participant, but as a force to be reckoned with: “I’m not just here. I’m here and I’m going to make some fucking noise.”
He then told a brief story of how he had to fight in order for his film to be funded. “The first thing they said to me was, ‘But there’s no white people in this film.’… So I said, ‘There WERE no white people in that area during the 90’s.’ All of the people in my film are Asian, black, and latino characters.”
“So they said, ‘Okay, can we make some changes? We’ll give you the money, but can we have a white cop who comes in and then leaves?'”
“So they said, ‘Well, about the black people… There’s no big names. Could we get some famous rappers in there?”
“NO! That’s distracting.” The audience laughed, but also something inside me ached. Were these real conversations Asian-American filmmakers had to go through? Does the industry still not see value in telling non-white stories?
“Just because I got some accolades and went to Sundance… it’s still like this film never happened,” Justin admitted into the microphone. He explained that its great that events like his showing at AAIFF happen, but it’s going to take a lot more work before Asian Americans fully have a place in the mainstream film industry. He emphasized the value of supporting Asian-American artists financially. He stated, “You have to vote with your wallet.” More than ever, Asian-Americans are becoming vocal on their desire to be seen, for their stories to be told, for their existances to be portrayed by themselves and reflect both their Americanness and Asianness as valid identities. We can do more by supporting films that help further these goals and by not attending films that still support white-washed casts and the perpetuation of stereotypes. We have a long way to go, but Justin’s successes have shown that small changes are possible.
The More You Know!
Zia, Helen. (2000). Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of An American People. Farrar, Strauss, and Grioux: New York, NY.
More Interviews With Justin Chon!