By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“I was so pleased to be invited…to the Seattle International Film Festival,” said Korean American actor and director Justin Chon. He recalled the reception of “Gook,” his second film as a director, at the festival.
“The audience took to it,” Chon said, regarding his SIFF presentation of the film, “and our discussions after were great.” He notes with a touch of frustration though, “There weren’t a lot of Asian American people in the audience. And during the Q&A, they didn’t ask any questions. I was hoping that our community would not just be quiet — but let their opinions be known.”
“For us to make a change for own Asian American community and for our artists and filmmakers, we have to get up from behind the desk or couch, and go out and support art and film that represents you. We really need the support from our community for both financial support and for viewership. It’s important that we tell our stories and keep our portrayals real and honest.”
Filmmaking runs in the family. Chon’s father, Sang Chon, was a child star in South Korea, comparable to America’s Macaulay Culkin. Sang Chon acted from ages 10 to 25, in pictures including a Korean knockoff of Japan’s “Godzilla” franchise. Years later, Justin Chon would watch a video of his father as a child, stuck inside the giant lizard’s ear and “trying to kill him with a giant Q-Tip.”
The older Chon did not act after immigrating to America, but Justin Chon did in his early 20s, and found astounding success in the “Twilight” film series, a love story saga set amidst a coven of vampires.
His most important acting advice, the younger Chon remembered, came on the set of “Twilight,” when “someone told me I was doing too much. Less is more. That made sense to me. So I followed their advice and it worked well. I just needed to pull back a little.”
The “Gook” film depicts a Korean shoe shop in Los Angeles in 1992, and in the shadow of the riots from late April to May of that year, that erupted after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of excessive force in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The riots lasted several weeks, leaving 60 people dead, resulting in more than 11,000 arrests, and an estimated $1 billion in property damage.
Its story mixes together Korean, Latino, and Black characters, sometimes cooperating, but often in conflict. It reflects the frustrating truth that American minorities often clash, sometimes violently.
In real life, Sang Chon did own a shoe store which was looted on the last day of the rioting —but that, said Justin Chon, was only one inspiration for the film’s script.
“Korean Americans,” he elaborated, “lost a lot of their business [in the riots] and I wanted to include our experience in this historic time. Often, that story is left out when the riots are discussed. I have been an actor for a while and I had auditioned for a number of films based on the riots, and felt that the Korean American perspective was left out. So, with the 25th anniversary of the event coming up, I wanted to make a film that would include that experience.”
In addition, concluded Chon, “I wanted to tell a story about different communities living together. Telling it from a perspective with the two [Korean] brothers and [a] young African American girl gave us an in, to talk about the racial situation, and about family, and what constitutes family.” ■
“Gook” opens Aug. 25 at Seattle’s Regal Meridian Cinemas, 1501 7th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Check local listings for prices and showtimes.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.