No tiki torches from any cowards here,” Ava DuVernay declared from the stage at Sundance Next Fest on Saturday afternoon, the day after Friday night’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. The acclaimed director, who made her own Sundance debut in 2012 with Middle of Nowhere, was in the rare position of playing interviewer, not interviewee, and she made the most of her opportunity.
“Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I’m asked about [race and gender]. I’m very seldom asked questions about filmmaking,” she told Gook director Justin Chon following a screening of his film, which won the Audience Award for Sundance’s Next sidebar in January. “So get ready for your craft questions!”
What ensued was a detailed conversation about lighting, 16 millimeter versus digital film, master shots, “one-ers” and types of lenses, some of the specifics of which proved too esoteric for certain laymen reporters. But the effect was educational nonetheless, particularly when DuVernay asked Chon to provide an anatomy of a specific scene — the drama’s heart-in-the-throat climax, impressively captured in a single long shot (the aforementioned “one-er”) by cinematographer Ante Cheng, whom DuVernay singled out for praise. The fact that Cheng is still a USC graduate student didn’t prevent Chon from asking him to come onboard, as the director explained his hiring philosophy: “Who are the people who need to be discovered?”
“Isn’t it nice to hear people of color filmmakers talk about craft?” DuVernay exclaimed. “It’s like a unicorn.”
Not that the two directors avoided discussing multiculturalism and representation, given that Chon’s film is entirely populated by Asian, black and Latino characters and set on April 29, 1992 — the day four white LAPD officers were acquitted for beating Rodney King. But unlike past and upcoming films about the L.A. riots, Gook takes place not in South Central but in Paramount (where, in real life, the shoe store owned by Chon’s father was looted), just across the 710 freeway from where DuVernay grew up. And Gook explores the racial tensions of the day from the seldom-represented Korean-American perspective, telling a slice-of-life tale of the friendship between shoe store owner Eli (played by Chon) and 11-year-old Kamilla (newcomer Simone Baker), a black girl who prefers hanging out with Eli and his brother Daniel (YouTube comedian and musician David So) over going to school.
“People were confused that the film was about two Korean-American brothers and one black girl,” Chon said of his attempts to secure financing for the movie. “But that was my reality.”
Chon said that to find an actress for the pivotal role of Kamilla, he scouted local African-American churches (the character sings and dances in the film) after the traditional route turned up child actors who were too overly trained. Finally he found Baker at Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, which provides free performing arts education to underserved students from ages 5 to 20 in south L.A. Meanwhile, Chon has been friends with So for years, and wrote the part of Daniel for him. “He’s known for comedy, but [he’s] deep. I played to his strengths,” Chon said. “People who say there are no talented Asian actors? Fuck that. David just hasn’t had the opportunity or the vehicle.”
That Gook’s post-screening conversation was between a black filmmaker and a Korean-American filmmaker created some particular poignancy in the discussion. “You play with some really electrifying racial tropes,” DuVernay said, telling Chon that an early scene in which Kamilla is surveilled in a liquor store by its Korean owner triggered visceral memories of the Latasha Harlins shooting.
That 1991 incident still looms large in the memories of many black and Korean Americans who lived in Los Angeles during that time, as DuVernay and Chon both did. Harlins was a 15-year-old girl who was fatally shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a liquor store owner who mistakenly suspected her of shoplifting. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but a judge sentenced her to probation and community service rather than incarceration. DuVernay’s pain was evident as she recounted the case, which further eroded relations between the local black and Korean communities and has been considered a contributing factor to the violence of the riots a year later.
“Being able to balance that tone was a real risky, bold, ballsy move,” DuVernay said, asking Chon to discuss his responsibilities in invoking that imagery.
“This was a scary movie to do. We’re talking about very heavy issues,” Chon acknowledged. “The backdrop of the acquittal of the four officers — as we all know, that’s still happening. I had to be conscious of all that.”