As its wounded, defiant provocation of a title suggests, “Gook” looks head-on at racial animosity, American-style. Set on the first day of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Justin Chon’s drama is uneven but bristling with life, and it offers a new perspective on a calamitous moment, one whose 25th anniversary has been commemorated in recent months with a slew of potent documentaries.
The writer-director’s fictional spin mixes street-level grit, melodrama and deadpan humor, placing a young black girl — memorably played by newcomer Simone Baker — at the hopeful, precarious center of a story that unfolds from the point of view of working-class Korean Americans.
“Do the Right Thing” is an obvious inspiration (Chon has also cited the hard-hitting French film “La Haine” and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, he throws in a blatant nod to “Clerks”), and as in Spike Lee’s landmark feature, the action revolves around a neighborhood store. In this case it’s a shop offering steeply discounted women’s footwear, some of it acquired through such back channels as the back of a truck. Chon, an actor whose credits include “Twilight,” stars as Eli, who owns and runs the shop with his younger brother, Daniel (stand-up comic David So, affecting in his first film role).
A standalone storefront behind a chain-link fence in Paramount — a few miles from the conflagrations that will erupt in South Los Angeles as the day proceeds — it’s a place that Westside shoppers might at first mistake for an abandoned property. But enough customers flock to it that the brothers’ unofficial shop assistant, 11-year-old Kamilla (Baker), keeps busy. She’s a sunburst of a girl, sporting tomboy cutoffs and a low-key riff on a Billie Holiday gardenia, but her open face sometimes crumples into an old soul’s scowl of worry.
Kamilla’s sister, Regina (Omono Okojie), and tightly wound brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), who are raising her, regularly warn her not to go the store. Their reasons, and the exuberant girl’s connection to the place, are gradually revealed but never explicitly spelled out. Chon’s judicious handling of backstory, through shards of individual memories but without clunky flashbacks, delivers depth charges of emotion.
At times, though, his assured grasp of the naturalistic milieu can give way to stilted or showy exchanges. As L.A. burns and the story moves toward its climax, it can feel overdetermined, especially regarding Kamilla’s purpose in the drama. But the low-budget movie, shot in artful black-and-white by Ante Cheng, pulses with yearning and sorrow and love for its characters. Its brightening touches of underplayed humor strengthen and comment on the main action.
In one sly, matter-of-fact detail, the “push” and “pull” signs on the store’s front door are reversed; anyone wishing to open the door should heed each sign as an instruction to do the opposite of what it says. It’s a nifty joke given the brothers’ conflicted feelings toward the business they inherited. Neither young man’s heart is really in it, although as the movie opens, on the day of the verdicts in the Rodney King case, taskmaster Eli hasn’t come to terms with his own dissatisfaction. Daniel, on the other hand, softer than his wiry sibling both physically and temperamentally, secretly has his sights set on becoming a professional singer.
Chon makes the economic realities and paradoxes of their situation fully felt. Eli and Daniel are behind on the store’s rent and live in far-from-glamorous circumstances, yet as business owners they face the resentment of some of their predominantly black clientele, who view them as exploiters. At the same time they’re subject to random beatings by Latino gangbangers. There are also more targeted attacks by Keith, with Cook, who made an impression in the New York coming-of-age indie “Naz & Maalik,” stirring up compellingly tangled depths in what might have been a walking cliché.
Within his stripped-down locales, Chon taps into an atmosphere of hair-trigger tensions and free-floating hatred, heightened by the events of that April 29 but hardly new. There are obvious intimations of Latasha Harlins’ shooting death in Kamilla’s interactions with a belligerent Korean liquor store owner. He’s played by a very good Sang Chon, the director’s father (who was a child actor in his native South Korea and whose Paramount store was looted during the ’92 riots). Through the unpredictable old man, the movie delves into a Korean American generational divide, to both comical and poignant effect.
“Gook” might not achieve everything it aims for, but it’s the work of someone reaching high. Viewing a pivotal event through a personal lens, Chon brings the futility of bigotry into vivid, aching focus. As Eli and Kamilla, two parentless Angelenos, watch smoke rise above the skyline, there’s no question that they are family.
In English and Korean with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; Regal LA Live Stadium, Los Angeles