Reposting an old interview with the star, producer and director of one of my favorite films from last year. Tired of the limited roles available for Asian American actors in Hollywood, Justin Chon decided to create his own. Chon directed, produced, wrote and starred in his latest film, Gook. The second film he’s directed, Gook tells the story of Eli and Daniel, two Korean American brothers who strike up an unlikely friendship with a younger African American girl named Kamila during the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots. Set in Southern Los Angeles during the riots, Gook explores racial tensions in the community as the three attempt to defend the shop and their own dreams against the ensuing chaos. I interviewed Chon about his latest film at the 40th Asian American International Film Festival.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
You’ve walked away from auditions and roles that you felt were stereotyping Asian Americans, and have begun creating your own roles instead. Did your previous experiences affect your approach to filmmaking?
First off, if I’m going to create a project, I’m probably going to cast it. I don’t want to artificially choose archetypes for my stories just because I have some sort of agenda. It needs to make sense to the story. People have been asking why there are no white people in the film, and it’s just because they weren’t apart of that narrative. They weren’t in those neighborhoods. I don’t mean to be purposefully excluding of them. But in terms of my approach, it’s all about authenticity.
There’s this whole thing about Asian American males. There’s been this weird trend that has happened the past few years, where companies feel like they have to include a gay character in the story. And I have very many gay friends, but when that break down constantly comes down, and they’re looking for an Asian guy for the gay guy, I have a problem with that. Because they’re trying to perpetuate the stereotype that Asian males are effeminate, and they’re trying to emasculate us. That’s a problem for me.
But on the flip side, when I’m approaching my work, I’m not going to make the Asian man this brooding guy with a huge chest and a crazy eight pack just because I’m trying to counter that. I think that is not authentic. Now if I were doing a film like say, I made something like Blue Valentine with the Ryan Gosling character, where my lead happens to be Asian American, then it makes sense to make him a stud. But not everything requires that. When you look at De Niro, Pacino, all these Italian guys, I don’t think they were these hunks. They weren’t like butch Ken dolls; they were character actors. And I feel like that’s my approach. Is it authentic? If it is, I think that’s what interests me. I’d rather show the humanity of a character than artificial agenda.
How about how you avoided stereotypes when writing characters of other ethnicities, such as your African American and Hispanic characters?
Again, it’s about crafting a character, a three-dimensional character with real wants and needs.
As far as my African American characters go, do they have a reason to be there? Do they have like real struggles and real things that they’re dealing with? Rather than just superficial. If they are angry, are they justified to be angry? Or are they just being angry for angry’s sake, because they’re mad at the system? I think that’s a stereotypical sort of thing, the African American man that’s mad at ‘the man.’ That’s very stereotypical. But if he’s mad for a particular reason, if someone did something to him, then he has every right to be mad. That’s my barometer: if there’s a justification and if they are three-dimensional, with real wants and needs.
In Gook, I noticed this emphasis on masculinity and vulnerability. Can you speak to those themes, and why you chose to explore them?
There’s something I just can’t avoid, is the fact that I’m an Asian American male, and the feeling that the way society views me, there’s no communication in the relationships we have with our fathers. It’s not like Asian American dads are very emotive or open in terms of community. When you can’t communicate, that sort of manifests: you start to act out, you start to do things physically. That’s just my truth.
In Gook, this is just [Eli’s] situation. He feels trapped by this sense of guilt to his dad, where he feels like when he was around he wasn’t adequately helpful, and also the pressure of holding things together. Being responsible for his younger brother, and keeping his idea of the legacy of his father around through the store and his surroundings. He’s in an adversarial situation, where he’s trying to make ends meet in a place where he’s not necessarily accepted, where he doesn’t feel like he belongs. And that creates tension, naturally.
Kamilla was originally written as Kamal, a male character, but was later changed. Why did you change the character, and did switching the character’s gender change the dynamic of the film?
One of my favorite films was A Perfect World, which is about the relationship between this captive played by Kevin Costner and a boy. And some of my favorite movies are about these relationships between an older person and a younger person, because a younger person always comes with a certain impression of life, and the older person is usually much more grizzled, and kind of beaten down by the world. That was sort of the dynamic between Kamal and Eli. It had the same elements, but if I’m going to make a film about the most underrepresented demographics in Hollywood —Asian American males, and African Americans male or female—then I might as well make an opportunity. My wife is pregnant with a daughter, and when I think about the world I’m going to bring my daughter into, do I want to her to feel like she’s represented and for her to feel like she can do things in life? I don’t know. I’d like to think so.
So if I’m creating the art, I’d like to give an opportunity to a young girl, because there’s already enough dudes in the film. It’s a bunch of dudes fighting: old, young, black, Mexican, Korean. So it’d be nice if I infused some female dynamic in there with the sort of bridge in the film, which is Kamilla. I just love the idea of such a young girl being so resilient and positive. Once I changed that character to female, it brought a new life to the story and got me even more exciting about shooting it.
You discovered Simone Baker at a community arts center in South Central Los Angeles. For a film about community, was it important to you to find actors and crew from the same areas and backgrounds in your film?
Not necessarily. Keith, the older brother played by Curtiss Cook Jr., is from New York. Simone actually grew up in Chicago when she was a baby. I just happened to find her.
I do gravitate toward neo-realism in terms of my style. When auditioning real actresses, one thing I found was they were too polished and rehearsed. And I needed some rawness that I felt like Simone had.
Simone, she’s just a naturally talented actress. In real life, she’s not like that character whatsoever. I didn’t pick her because she was tomboyish. In real life, she’s very prissy, and her favorite color is pink. She’s acting. But I felt like she had the right energy, and it was genuine, it wasn’t like, put on; it wasn’t like ‘I’m playing this character.’ This character, it just emanated from her soul. When I found her at the Fernando Pullum Community Center, I saw her, like in a cloud. As cheesy as it sounds, I just knew. Out of respect for the center, I auditioned everyone who came in, but I just knew she was the one. She just has raw talent. She was just the best person for the job.
I don’t have this sort of like, artificial set rule that I have to adhere, like she has to be from South Central, like she has to be from here and live the life of this girl. No, I don’t believe in that.
Have you seen a difference in how this film was perceived by older viewers who lived through these experiences when compared to millennials?
I was eleven when [the riots] happened, but anyone who was younger than me, a lot of them don’t remember this event. Some of them maybe have heard about it, but not exactly why it happened. So it’s kind of a nice educational opportunity to talk about it, to talk about Rodney King and what caused the officers to be acquitted, and how it pertains to current events.
And I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but the most interesting thing is that many of the ancillary characters were mispronouncing gook. They were pronouncing it like guk or they didn’t know how to say it. In a way, it’s good that’s not in their vernacular, but it’s a bad thing because it made me think, “Oh, so even our derogatory terms aren’t so strong or influential.” It’s a really weird Catch-22, that [millennials] don’t even know this word exists. But what’s inspiring is that the story is the story, and they still understand the struggle of the characters in the film, and they understand the themes and the plot and the friendships.
The older audiences, that’s one of the first things they talk about. When an older viewer approaches tell me about where they were when it happened, either tell me they were in the vicinity, or they talk about what they were going through at the time if they were close. So that’s really interesting in terms of the backdrop to the riots, at least.
When Eli’s car is vandalized and “gook” is painted on it in the film, Kamilla asks what the word means. Why does Eli choose not to explain the meaning of the word?
One of the reasons why I named the film Gook, it’s a chance to educate, it’s the chance to talk about the origins. The first thing you see is the definition of the word.
But in this pivotal moment, as things are starting to shift in the day, Eli can perpetuate the cycle and tell her the racial slur version of the world and educate her on a hateful comment, or he can choose to tell her the literal meaning and kind of shelter her from that. With their friendship, I’m not making a judgment either way on what he decided to do. But symbolically, I think that his decision meant a lot. He takes a second before he answers, “Oh, you mean gook?” He takes a second, and then he makes the decision to just give her the literal definition.
Since the riots were something you grew up with, did you or your father, whose shop was looted during the riot, have to prepare emotionally to revisit this event?
My dad was really confused. He didn’t understand why I wanted to revisit this. I guess for Korean people, you don’t talk about hurtful, tragic events in the past. Like when my grandma was alive we never talked about Japanese imperialism and why she could speak Japanese. When this actually happened, we never talked about it. He just disappeared and he went to go protect the store.
He was really perplexed as to why I wanted to revisit a tumultuous time in our life, and sort of in our experience in the US. Of course, I thought it was important because if two other films about the riots were going to be made, and the Korean perspective wasn’t being represented or portrayed, that was a problem for me. I definitely felt like we should be at the table giving our two cents.
But as for him, he was just confused. Even now, I don’t know if he knows or understands why or what the significance is. And I’ve talked to Korean older people, and they’re just not interested. I tell older, first-generation immigrant Korean men and they’re kind of confused as well, until they see it and then they’re like, “Oh I see the merit in it.”
I think it took him a sec to get into it and understand. It took me a while for me to convince him to even do it, about three months.
Your father used to be a child actor and worked in the film industry. Did his work influence or inspire you, in any part, to go into filmmaking?
I grew up watching his black-and-whites. My dad, he was a real actor. His teacher thought he was a natural performer, and put him in this competition for his school. And it progressed; he won the regional, and then the entire acting competition for all of Korea, so then he toured in theaters throughout Japan. So he actually did real acting work. It wasn’t like cheesy Korean dramas; he was doing theater work.
You know, being Asian American in the ‘80s, I don’t think it was really ever a possibility to pursue acting as a profession. Even when it started in like 1999 or 2000, the only ones there were John Cho as the MILF guy, or Steve Park on In Living Color, which was awesome. It didn’t seem like a likely sort of occupation, but I come from an artistic family. My mom was a pianist, so we grew up going to art camp. We didn’t go to, like, football camp or anything. My family was always in the arts. One good thing about my family, they didn’t push me; it was my choice whether to go to college or not, and it was my choice what I wanted to do with my life. So when it came time, I don’t know, I just took a huge gamble.
Gook in coming out the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots. There have been several documentaries released this year about the riots, including K-Town 92 and The Lost Tapes. Why was it important to create a fictional story amongst all these other films?
If you watch my film, you don’t see rioting. It’s all through the news.
I think the LA riots provide the time and place, the racial tension and the sort of current events for this type of to take place. Through my narrative, I talk about these issues. If you’re directly talking about issues, I don’t think that leaves room for the audience to talk for themselves. For me, my goal is to not put judgment, to not be heavy-handed and tell you what to think. I lay it out, and it’s a story I thought up. But it’s more about for people to leave and talk amongst themselves, how they feel about everything.
I’ve seen Burn Motherfucking Burn on Showtime, and KTown 92, and I think they’re all so incredibly well done. I’ve done so many panels with Grace [Lee Boggs] now. Those are all so important. If you want to see rioting and you want to see people going nuts and you want to see court footage, documentary is perfect for that. But for a narrative, I think being that literal is kind of waste of real estate. It’s just as effective as doing a documentary, but I think it’s a different approach to provoke thought. That’s just my personal taste.
You can also read my review of Gook from last year’s Asian American International Film Festival.
This interview originally appeared in The Moviegoer on July 30, 2017.