Interview: Justin Chon’s film GOOK in theaters August 18
23 Jun, 2017
During the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Dig In Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Cindy Maram, caught up with director, writer, producer and actor Justin Chon to discuss his new film GOOK (2017) on the exact day of the 25th Anniversary of the LA Uprising, better known as the LA Riots. Read on to learn what Chon had to say about his new film, which was the winner of the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (Learn more about Sundance 2017 Winners: 2017 Sundance Film Festival Feature Film Awards Revealed). GOOK provides a glimpse into the Korean American experience during that tragic and historic period. The film will make its LA Premiere at Sundance NEXT FEST this August 12th, 4pm at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, as well as have its theatrical release via Samuel Goldwyn Films beginning August 18th.
Read our review of GOOK film: LAAPFF & UCLA Commemorate LA Uprising with GOOK & Panels
Dig In Magazine: As mentioned, today marks the 25th anniversary of the LA Uprising or better known as LA Riots. I was wondering if you could tell me why this day is significant to you specifically and your film Gook?
Justin Chon: Well, today is important to me because 25 years is a good amount of time to look back and reflect on what has happened in the last 25 years–how we have progressed or not progressed. Relating to my film though, it is really important because as an Asian American and specifically talking about how my film is playing at the LA Asian Pacific Film Fest tonight, it is a good way to track Asians in media. 25 years ago, in ’92 I can’t tell you one film that I can remember that features Asian Americans that don’t speak with broken English and aren’t martial arts actors. It is cool to see in the last 25 years that we have progressed so much that a film like Gook with these type of characters, these two guys, are just blue collar normal guys that are just trying to get through their day who just happen to be Korean American. A story like that can be well received and also be a part of the festival circuit in the United States. I think today is a day of reflection and also to think about where we are going. It is a good kind of pit stop for us to think about all these things.
DIM: Yes, and what was it about the LA Uprising (this is a very important thing that happened), but I was wondering what was it about this specific event in history that inspired you to make a film about it?
JC: Well, we got looted–my family got looted. It is not that I just picked a random topic. I didn’t pick a random event, because I thought it was compelling. It is something that my family experienced and we were affected by. The other LA Riots films that are coming out and all these documentaries are great and I think everybody has a right to tell any story that they desire to tell. Just because I am Korean American doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to tell a story about Napoleon, but at the same time having gone through it and also being a filmmaker I would feel incredibility guilty if I didn’t share the Korean perspective of the uprising.
DIM: Why did you choose another form of filmmaking in contrast to making a documentary? There are a number of documentaries made about it.
JC: Well, first of all because I think there are five documentaries about the riots and to me, I love watching documentaries and if you look at my Netflix it is most of what I watch. I am an actor first and foremost, that is my passion. And narrative storytelling is incredibly powerful and it is just the format of storytelling that I prefer especially with this. In a number of interviews, I have talked about this, but I wasn’t here to give a history lesson. There is news footage you can watch and these documentaries, but my purpose for this film was to give sort of my take on it and my perspective through my lens rather than report on things. If you watch the film, the LA Riots is what is happening in the background. It is what allows for the social conditions for this story to take place rather than the driving force. I don’t focus on the actual riots and I am not in the epicenter of people looting and rioting. It is the time and place [of the LA Riots.]
DIM: It was clear that was the period of time that your film was set in, but I thought it was a very creative way of expressing what happened during that period. You spoke about your acting as your main passion first and foremost and this is the second feature you have directed, correct?
DIM: What inspired and motivated you to move beyond acting into directing and filmmaking?
JC: Well, as an actor I have a say in how my part is played and how I can be a part of the storytelling machine that another director is constructing, but I don’t really have a say on the story. I don’t really get to put my input into the structural aspects of storytelling. Also, even when I am on set I always wonder what I would do if I was directing the film and a lot of times it differs from what the director is doing. So, it is just a different form of expression. I absolutely enjoy being a part of someone else’s vision and aiding the director to get to where they want to go and being a part of a team in that sense is an actor-director relationship. When you create yourself, it is incredibly rewarding and also a lot of work and I am responsible for everything from the set design to talking with my DP, figuring out how I want the film to look. And from the script phase, I get to be the master of the structure of it and exactly what themes I want to portray in the film. So, I have a lot of say, I have much more say, and something as personal as the LA Riots and having been through it, I don’t think I would want to negotiate with somebody else about this film in particular, which is why I raised independent financing rather than going through a production house.
DIM: There were a lot of scenes in the film that were actually very funny and I liked the contrast–the comedic scenes with the serious tone of what was going on during that time. What was your reasoning for placing those scenes in the film? Like the dancing in the store, those were very funny–and there were some lines and situations that were very funny as well.
JC: To address the dancing scene everything has a place and a purpose. [With] the dancing scene, I had to show why Kamilla comes to the store every day. If I don’t show the joy and the fun that they have at the store it doesn’t deepen the relationship and why she gravitates towards the store so much. So, that is part of the emotional journey for Kamilla and is why that is included. But in terms of comedy it is like music, you have staccatos and slow builds and then crescendos and emotionally, if you want to take something somewhere you can’t start off at a ten. There needs to be dynamics to the piece. So, that is life too, it is sometimes incredibly ironic, funny and sometimes it is incredibly tragic. This all happens over a day. I haven’t had days that are this tragic, but I have definitely had days that have had all these emotions just in one day and I think it is just more truthful. I love films like 21 GRAMS, but as a filmmaker I don’t necessarily know how to make that film, it is so tough to watch.
DIM: And your character in the film had a very touch exterior. How did you come up with that character and the other characters in the film?
JC: Well, if you notice Kamilla is 11 in the film and I just so happened to be 11 when the riots happened. Daniel, he is aspiring for an impossible dream that will most likely never happen and I think that parallels my own life trying to be an actor. Then the older Eli is trying to carry on his dad’s legacy, which I don’t know if he truly wants to do that or not, but it’s out of sort of a guilt and he is responsible for everybody and that is how I feel about a lot of things I deal with as an adult. So, I think those are three manifestations of kinds of phases in my own life. But apart from that I think it is also dynamics and everybody has to have real strong wants and needs and after I created the characters that is basically what was important to me–that they were three dimensional characters. I don’t necessarily think that when I was creating Eli that I was thinking he was going to be a tough, I think those come after you create a character. I don’t think I was aiming to make him tough on the exterior and I think it just comes from what his objective is in life. Those are a byproduct of that construction.
DIM: You had multiracial and multigenerational characters in your film, what caused you to make the decision incorporate that?
JC: If I am getting to direct my own movie and write my own movie it is a perfect opportunity to practice what we preach. Everybody is talking about diversity and everybody is moaning and complaining about it. That is the biggest thing I have been saying, “If you have a problem about it, do something” and I think our biggest weapon as artists and creators–to go back to that question about, “Why as an actor do I decide to direct?” I don’t think I am reserved for one type of expression. I think as an artist it is not just to act, what I love is to create. I love to create roles, I love to write, I love to direct and it is my form of expression and that goes the same for this film. I felt like if I am creating my own film, I would like to create roles that I would like to be in [and] also create roles for others that they would kill to be in. I felt like all these roles are fleshed out and meaty roles. So, originally Kamilla was Kamal who was an African American boy, but during the rewrite process I felt this would be a really great opportunity to serve two really underrepresented demographics, which are Asian American males and African American females, so I changed the role to female.
DIM: Were you trying to break down certain stereotypes throughout the film?
JC: Absolutely, for that character. For the liquor store owner that was definitely an intention of mine because that is such a stereotypical representation of Koreans in South Central and Inglewood and Compton. They own liquor stores and small groceries and that is exactly what people think they are. So yes, it was intentional where I presented it this way but then that is the thing about human nature, you just want to categorize people and you have them figured out. But the reality is, you don’t really know what they have gone through until you actually sit down and have a conversation. Conflict brings about that–expressive moments in conflict in people’s lives will have a lot of character and real characteristics will be revealed. I don’t know about you, but a lot of people in my life that I have met, that I thought I had figured out, when I actually sit down and talk to them–and these preconceived notions of who they are, are grossly wrong most times, because a lot of these facades are created to protect themselves.
DIM: I was wondering if you could tell me what impact do you hope your film will make with audiences, the Asian American community and society as a whole?
JC: I present to you basically my film, I present to you GOOK, and it is my interpretation, my sort of telling of that time period. The LA Riots is in the background and if you are asking me if I wanted to change society I don’t know if that is my main goal in life. But if you look at the film what the film is really about in its bare essence is friendship. It’s a film about friendship. These universal themes are so powerful and I hope those are the things that they take away from it and it is a presentation of what I was going through as an 11-year-old as a 22-year-old and as a 27-year-old. I hope that people, when they watch it, it makes them think about whatever the current situations are. But if you look at the film, it’s not preachy. I write a very fine line, I am not trying to preach whatsoever. It is more of a way for people to just start a conversation.
DIM: I thought it was a very creative and effective way of telling the story. I really liked how you did it, because like you said, there are so many documentaries about the LA Riots and this way it brought up the topic, but it also made people ponder a little more about it. It was very powerful.
JC: That is a huge compliment, because that is my intention. I am not trying to preach, I am not trying to force my viewpoint down anyone’s throat, which is why in the film everybody is wrong. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. But they don’t listen to one another, they don’t communicate and because of that, they lose what is most precious to them.