Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Reclaiming 'Gook': new film tackles racial tensions during '92 riots

by Lori Galarreta and A Martínez | Take Two®

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MY KICKSTARTER https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2084768431/gook-a-korean-american-la-riots-film Hey friends. I have been dreaming of making this project for the last few years and I was able to put it in the can this past summer. I'm so proud of this film and what it represents. I'm just trying to get over the last hump and finish post production. If you have a second please check out my kickstarter. Thank you so much guys. I won't let you down! Justin Chon (via YouTube)

There's a movie set here in Los Angeles that's getting a lot of attention about the first day of the 1992 L.A. Riots.

It's told through the perspective of a Korean American shoe store owner and his unlikely friendship with a young African American girl.

And the movie has a name thats...well, it's offensive.

The film is called "Gook," which is, of course, a racial epithet used against Asian Americans. The slur first came into use during the Korean war. But in spite of the word's racist connotation- the writer, director and star of the film, Justin Chon had a reason for choosing it as the name of his movie:

"When G.I.'s and military people come over. Koreans people would say 'Migug saram. Migug.' 'Migug' means America and what that word actually means is beautiful country and how that word was taken and turned against us into a derogatory term I just...I wanted to take that word back and also explain where it comes from. So you know, it takes the power away from the word once there's understanding behind it."

The film had humble beginnings, Chon started by raising funds on Kickstarter last year and once it was completed it was featured the Sundance Film Festival where it won the NEXT audience award.

And the roots of the story Justin Chon tells in his film were based on his personal experiences:

"Our family was looted during the riots. We had a business on the border of East Compton and Paramount. So you know, I've always wanted to make a film about this and my perspective on the whole situation and I had read a few a scripts over the years about the riots...the biggest thing is, having been through it as a Korean American, if I didn't tell my perspective of this event that truly affected a lot of Koreans around that time, I'd feel really guilty."

His personal connection to the riots didn't hinder his ability to reflect and tell a story most Angelenos are familiar with.

"Myself, I was 11-years-old so I saw this event happen as a child and I didn't have this perspective of hate. So, I saw it through very innocent eyes. So me, kind of revisiting this and what happened to my family at the time, it's a little bit different because I didn't have that hatred towards the community. And also, a lot of things have changed since '92, back then a lot Korean immigrants were immigrating and entering these neighborhoods and setting up businesses and they were making money but they weren't really assimilating to their surroundings and the community and they weren't giving back. That understanding wasn't there, that education wasn't there. But now they're integrating to those communities.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots and it's just a different time. There's other things happening in the country and it's a good time to talk about this."

Chon's story is indeed timely, because as the old saying goes, 'The more things change, the more things stay the same.' Looking back on 1992 there was racial tension, there was issues with police and now we're in 2017 and some of those same issues are still around.

"Things have shifted a bit. This particular time there's police brutality, that's still completely prevalent in the U.S. and also racial tension, I think at that time the community imploded and African-Americans were very angry at the Koreans but right now I think the racial tensions are a little bit different."

Justin Chon directs Omono Okojie and Simone Baker.
Justin Chon directs Omono Okojie and Simone Baker. Melly Lee

Chon highlights the tensions happening in 1992 and in the present by capturing this unlikely friendship between his character Eli and the character Kamilla, played by actress Simone Baker. It's certainly an unlikely friendship. An adult Asian American man a young African American girl. 

"During the writing phase, one of my goals was to represent, two very underrepresented demographics in media which is Asian American males and African American females. So that was one motivating factor but also, its just things that interest me are unlikely pairings and also what our definition of family is. There's a family that you're born into and there's also the family that you choose and it doesn't in my opinion, always have to make sense. It's just...you share a common experience and these two do, they have an event happened in both of their lives that they share and it just breaks barriers. It breaks common perception of what traditional friendship is.

To listen to the full segment, click the blue play button above. 

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