Justin Chon's electric and impassioned Gook, a comic drama tinged with tragedy, is set on the day in 1992 when South Central Los Angeles erupted after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Often, it's a powerful corrective: We witness the story behind the stereotypical image of a Korean shopkeeper caught up in ugly confrontations with customers. This shopkeeper, played by Chon's father, pulls a gun on a pre-teen African-American girl Kamilla (Simone Baker) he believes has been shoplifting; later, as he listens to other Korean business owners on the radio discussing attacks on their stores, he explains to a young Korean-American man that, back home, every man had to serve some years in the military. The young man responds with what he plans to do with his life: become an R&B singer.
At Gook's best, Chon captures, with sharply memorable dialogue, both the essence of particular characters and the drift of generations. Chon and David So play two Americanized brothers who have inherited their late father's shoe store; the initial hang-out aimlessness and the black-and-white photography invite comparison to Kevin Smith's Clerks, but Gook is more accomplished and often prickingly tense. The other film that haunts Chon's is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Lee's miraculous film finds empathy for everyone involved in its conflagration. Gook has a villain (Curtiss Cook Jr.), the older brother of Kamilla, who keeps siccing his posse on the brothers and screams at Kamilla about those "gooks." Chon's late-in-the-film efforts to humanize Keith -- to root his fury in a cycle of violence -- don't wash away the sense that another cycle is repeating: the onscreen demonization of black men.