From Twilight to Gook: How Justin Chon Found His Voice in His Own Painful Racial Past

Justin Chon. Photo: Bobby Doherty

Gook director Justin Chon was 11 years old when the 1992 Rodney King riots hit his father’s athletic-shoes warehouse in South Central Los Angeles. “It was demolished. It was like a tornado came through,” he says of the looting. Over those six days following the acquittal of four white LAPD officers caught on videotape beating a black taxi driver, 2,300 Korean-owned stores were burned or looted, for $400 million worth of damage, making them the hardest-hit group other than the City of Los Angeles itself.

As time passed, the city calmed. Chon got into acting, built a YouTube following (225,000), and got work as that Asian kid you sort of recognize from Twilight (he played Bella’s friend Eric Yorkie, who made dumb jokes), or the Asian guy who got crazy drunk in 21 & Over. But as the 25th anniversary of the riots approached this year, Chon kept seeing script after script — from Spike Lee, from American Crime’s John Ridley, and even from Turkish Mustang director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (whose love story, Kings, starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, is debuting at September’s Toronto Film Festival) — that didn’t reflect his experience. He realized that if he wanted Korean-American representation, he’d have to do it himself, and quick. “I just thought, No one’s going to care about any L.A. riots film that’s going to be made after those movies. We can’t compete with their production budget, or their marketing power, or their star names. I just felt like timing-wise it needed to be now or never.”

So he spent the past two years writing and shooting his second directorial effort, Gook, plus raising $56,000 on Kickstarter to finish it. Filmed in grainy black and white, with a title some viewers can’t bring themselves to say, it follows two Korean-American brothers (responsible Eli, played by Chon, and aspiring R&B singer Daniel, played by massive YouTube star David So), as they try to keep their women’s-shoe store afloat on the day the riots start, plus play big-brother figures to an 11-year-old African-American girl, Kamilla (great newcomer Simone Baker). Chon spoke to Vulture about that incendiary title, being Asian-American in Hollywood, releasing this movie during a white-nationalist resurgence — and, of course, Twilight.

I guess my first question is, what’s it like opening up this movie in the same two weeks that white nationalists are marching in American cities?
We’re going to start this interview very heavy! [Laughs.] There are two ways of looking at it. One is, some people are saying, “Oh, isn’t it unfortunate that it’s so relevant right now, still, even though the events of the film are 25 years removed?” But the opposing argument, and what I stand by, is that it’s been there the entire time; it’s just been lying dormant. It just took 25 years for the blanket to be lifted. It’s important for us to acknowledge that and deal with it.

As an Asian, do you feel welcome in this country? Does it feel different than it did before the election?
It’s funny; this takes me back. It’s like a time machine. The feeling that I had of being Asian in this country as a kid — this is a huge, rude awakening of, “Oh yeah. I forgot. That’s what it feels like.” I’ve been under this spell that things are better. But all this happening makes me feel like, “Shit, man. I guess there’s a lot of places in this country that, if I were to go to, now I’m vocally and overtly not welcome.” It’s this weird feeling of going back to my childhood.

I was shocked to learn that Korean businesses accounted for 45 percent of the property destroyed.
Yeah! And we were not being talked about even though we were looted. What does that mean? I also have questions about masculinity as an Asian-American male. For some reason, we’re not seen as men. It’s weird if we get angry or have outrage. Also, how come we’re never seen as working class [in movies]? We’re always the model minority and we’re pitted against other minorities for someone else’s agenda.

David So, the actor who plays my brother, and I had long conversations about this. His parents owned a black beauty supply [shop] in Sacramento growing up, and he grew up in a predominantly African-American community. People then were looking at him like, “Why are you in our community? Why are you the one getting the loans to open these businesses in our community, when we’re not allowed to even get these loans?” The hatred went to [the Korean merchants]. But maybe we should be mad at the people and the system that created this situation in the first place, and who put wedges between us, cross-ethnically. Also, how do we [as Korean-Americans] relate to our parents when they don’t identify as American at all but we do? How do we see eye to eye with people who are almost alien to ourselves?

Your dad’s warehouse was in Paramount, next to Compton — also the setting for Gook. What’s your understanding of why Koreans had so many businesses in black neighborhoods?
My dad’s reason for being there was that the rent was cheaper, and it was also central, so if people were buying shoes from him wholesale, it’s a lot easier to have something close to L.A. than in Orange County. But my sister and I lived in the suburbs because my Dad wanted us to go to a nice public school.

But in your film, your actual dad plays Mr. Kim, a belligerent convenience store owner. How did you research Korean shopkeepers?
Well, obviously being Korean [laughs]. I can’t escape it! A lot of my friends’ parents owned liquor stores and dry cleaners. My friend Johnny, his parents got shot on two separate occasions. And I talked to my Dad. This might not be evident, but most Korean people don’t want to talk about the riots. My Dad was really confused as to why I wanted to do this. For his generation, it was like, “Why do you want to revisit such a traumatic event in our history?” I’ll tell you this right now: The first-generation Korean community is not even that supportive of the film.

Yeah. The older generation is not rallying around the film, but Korean-Americans are watching this film and saying, “Oh, this is exactly how I felt growing up.”

How do you know that? Ticket sales? Hearing it through the grapevine?
Again, it has to do with being Korean. When we went out to Sundance, I have a friend who worked for one of the Korean newspapers. She did a story about it and the only thing we got was complaints. It was just, “Why did you call it Gook? That’s offensive.” My only response was, “How about you watch the film, and let’s have a conversation.” Throughout the run of the film at festivals, none of the Korean newspapers sent out press to cover it. You think they would, because it’s such a Korean story, but they didn’t. We did a screening with a Korean organization in L.A., and based on the reaction of them watching the film, afterwards, there was no sense of wanting to have a conversation. They just got up and left. Some people walked out in the middle of it. The younger generation at those screenings were totally engaged and wanted to talk about these issues, but the older generation, just being Korean, I can tell they don’t care.

I mean, the movie is mostly about the experience of your character and his brother. Yes, but I really made an effort to also have the perspective of the older generation. At the beginning of the film, Mr. Kim is the stereotype you see time and again in every movie set in the hood where they antagonize the Korean merchant. It’s in Do the Right Thing, Menace II Society, it’s even in The Family Man, and that’s not even a black film! That’s a film with Nicolas Cage and Ken Leung as an angry Asian liquor-store owner! My job was to peel back those layers and humanize that character. When you first meet Mr. Kim, you go, “I hate this guy,” but then you start to understand where he’s coming from. I just think that if the community were to support its own, and say, “Oh, this is the younger generation telling our story,” maybe it would make a difference [for the movie].

It’s surprising that the older generation is so disengaged, because it’s so rare to have any American movie told from a Korean perspective.
Well, for a lot of Korean-Americans, our parents emigrated here in the ’70s or ’80s, and they’re still in a vacuum. They have this conservative modality they haven’t been able to break. In the mother country, Korea has become much more forward-thinking in terms of fashion and entertainment. But you talk to the people here and it’s like, “Whoa, dude. You’re still basing this shit off Confucianism. You’re still so in that filial piety.” We’ve seen it, like, in the plane crash where the junior pilot was too scared to tell the older pilot something is wrong: Korean culture doesn’t listen to youth. It’s, “What are these young kids going to tell us that we don’t already know?”

Carol Park, whose mother ran a gas station in Compton during the riots, has posited that a lot of racial tension between Korean merchants and black customers can be attributed to simple cultural misunderstandings. Does that make sense to you?Absolutely. It’s disrespectful for Koreans to have their money in their hand. You put it on the table and you let them pick it up. In American culture, that’s very rude: “Oh, you’re just throwing it on the counter.” Another thing is, Korean people don’t look you in the eye. When you look someone in the eye in Korean culture, it’s an adversarial thing; you only do that when you’re confronting someone. The African-American community was taking the lack of eye contact and nonengagement as, “Oh, you don’t give a fuck about us.”

I’ll also say that, having grown up in a Chinese family, older Asian immigrants could definitely be racist, particularly to black people.
Yeah, the countries that our grandparents came from are homogenous societies. It’s like, only Chinese, only Korean. The culture shock is incredible.

You guys got looted on the last day of the riots. Was your dad there the whole time?Yes. As the day unfolded, I saw my Dad just get up and leave. As you know, in Asian culture, we don’t talk about trauma. There’s no “family meetings.” We don’t say, “Okay, son, daughter, this is what’s happening.” I understood that my Dad was leaving to protect the store, but my mom or dad never mentioned it.

What did all that destruction do to the Korean community as you knew it?
A lot of people didn’t have insurance. Some people lost everything, and a lot of those people went back to Korea. Our family used to go to Koreatown every day to go to the sauna, do our shopping, and have Korean food for the week. We didn’t go back for a while. These places I went all the time were just demolished.

It took you three months to convince your dad to appear in the movie. What did you learn about his POV during that time?
If you’ll notice, the film is like a Western. Have you seen The Last Picture Show? That’s a huge inspiration of mine, because they’re in a Podunk town, almost separated from society. In the earlier draft, I had a tumbleweed blow by. That’s what my Dad felt, that nobody is coming to save you. The government’s not coming, the police are not coming. My Dad was a Korean marine, and there was a unit of ex-marines helping out other Korean businesses. They had a CB radio and would be like, “Oh, XYZ on Olympic and Alvorado needs help,” so they’d get in an Econoline van and try to protect the store.

That’s in the film! And that was your Dad’s story? For real?
Yeah! Our parents came from a wartime country. They’re like, “Suck it up!“ There was just such a sense of abandonment for Korean immigrants. It wasn’t like they got government aid in terms of how they integrated.

Let’s talk about naming your movie Gook. You’ve said that it’s only a bad word in an American context. In the movie, it’s spray-painted on Eli’s car and he tells Kamilla that in Korean it means “country.” But most people are deeply uncomfortable saying the word. Why choose something so in your face?
I wanted people to know what that word is, where it comes from, and why it exists. In that pivotal moment in the film, Eli has a choice: He can either teach Kamilla to perpetuate this cycle of hate, or he can shield her from hatred for the time being, and teach her the literal definition. That’s an active choice in the film not to go there. The shocking thing is, when I was making this film, a lot of people in the younger generation don’t know what it means. Some know it’s a racial slur, but the fact that people don’t is a problem. To me, it means that our history is getting erased. Especially if you’re Asian-American, you need to know that Americans call us this, and that if it comes up in conversation, it’s not okay, and you can call it out. To me, that’s very important.

I also wanted to point out that that word is part of our language. The word miguk means “America,” but also, “beautiful country.” Here we are, saying this country is beautiful, but yet they just made that word into a racial slur!

Did you know from the beginning that that was going to be the title?
Yeah, but to be honest, I was scared. I went through a bunch of different titles and I thought, “No, it has to be this.” I know I’m going to get shit from some people for it, but ten years down the line, when I talk about this film, if I didn’t title it this, I knew I would regret it.

You’ve talked about the portrayal of Asian men in film. It makes me think about your Twilight character, Eric Yorkie. He’s a valedictorian, but also a dweeb and pines after Kristen Stewart. I mean, he’s not going to get the girl because he’s not a vampire or a werewolf. But doesn’t he also play into the stereotype of how the Asian guy in movies never gets the girl?
Yeah [laughs], but that’s why I have to make my own films. In traditional American media, Asian guys have been emasculated and aren’t seen as actual men. In Twilight, I wasn’t there to be the love interest, but I think at that point, when we shot it in 2007, I was in a different place. It was ten years ago, and I was just trying to get a job. As long as I didn’t have an accent — which is sad, but it also shows how far we’ve come — and I didn’t have to be, like, such a loser or a super-nerd, I was like, “Okay, I’m willing to do this.”

My take on that character was, first of all, I’d just seen Kristen Stewart in Into the Wild, and I love that film. Then I found out Catherine Hardwicke was directing, and she had just done Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen, and I was huge fans of those movies too. For me, it was more of an opportunity to work with those two. I thought of Eric as this really helpful guy who was friends with one person from each group. He’s friends with one jock, with one newspaper guy, with one person from the chess club, one from the debate team. At the time, I wasn’t thinking, “This guy’s such a little bitch!” [Laughs.] I was just thinking, “How do I humanize this character?” In that first movie, I think I did. He seems like a real guy and he’s not two-dimensional.

You did this funny YouTube video about showing up at a Twilight premiere where no one recognizes you. Is that still the credit people know the most?
That and 21 & Over. On the street, a person will recognize me and go, “Oh, he’s the guy from Dr. Ken that one time,” and their friend goes, “No, he’s the guy from Twilight!” and then they start arguing with one another, because Asians are only allowed to do one movie or one TV show in their entire life!

When did you figure out that you had to write your own stories to tell these kinds of stories?
I’ve been acting now for about 15, 16 years. Year after year after year, I’m constantly being told, “Oh, you can’t do that because you’re Asian.” “You can’t play that aggressive role because of the way you look.” Or, for TV shows: “You’re the guy who does tech.” “You’re the best friend.” Enough of that! If it’s a money thing, there are certain stars — who I won’t name — who have tons of bombs in a row, but they keep getting opportunities to be the lead in Hollywood. Why isn’t that happening with us? Hollywood’s very quick to say, “Oh, that didn’t work because he was Asian.” Like, if they were going to use an Asian lead, they’d only give you one shot. Seeing what we’re relegated to, I’m like, “I’ll make my own and I’ll show that we do have depth. Maybe I won’t have the budget level of Star Wars or Marvel, but at least you can’t say we’re not talented. You can’t say we can’t carry a movie.” In making my own thing, I think I proved those statements false.

What did you think when you saw white people getting cast as characters who’d originally been Asian in Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, or Aloha?
I think it’s really good that people are vocal and said, “Okay, that’s not cool.” But the opposite side of that is, “Why the fuck are you complaining? It’s too late! They already made the movie!” My thing is, if you don’t do anything about it, then you’re not allowed to complain anymore.

I went to a racist audition and wrote an op-ed about it. And I made Gook. For me, grassroots is the fastest way to change things. You don’t have to ask for permission. If you’re waiting for Hollywood to change — a huge studio with fiscal responsibility to stockholders — good luck, because you’re going to be waiting a really long time.

Why do you think it was so hard for you to finance Gook? It was hard, right?
So hard! No one wanted to make a film with two Korean-American male leads and a black female, and about the riots, and then have it be in black and white? But I knew there was an emotional core there that would resonate with people, so it was about convincing people who weren’t too far outside my circle to invest in increments of six- to nine-thousand dollars. We did a Kickstarter and raised $56,000 to help with postproduction. And this last weekend, we had the highest per-screen average of all indie films! We beat Marjorie Prime with Jon Hamm! It’s like, dude, there’s an appetite for this! Everybody who told us no, it just shows that it’s time. It’s time! Take the risk!

Is pay disparity a real issue? Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park quit Hawaii 5-0 because they couldn’t get equity with their white co-stars.
Dude! Dude! We could do another three-hour interview about this. Are you kidding me? There’s pay discrepancy between male and female but there’s also huge pay discrepancy between white and not white, and then even between black and Asian, if we’re going to go there. But in my career now, I don’t know if that’s my fight. My fight is creating. I think for Daniel, he’s been in the public eye and he’s been on hit TV shows, so it might be his fight. But for me, I wouldn’t mind just being employed. [Laughs.]

What’s life after Gook look like?
Next I really want to do this story about people who get adopted from Korea when they’re 3 and get deported when they’re 40-something because their parents never filed the right paperwork.

I saw you also have a movie coming out, Taipei, about a Brooklyn couple, based on a novel by Tao Lin.
Well, I start shooting a show for ABC called Deception in two weeks. It’s about an illusionist who helps the FBI solve crime and I’m part of the illusion team. I’m pretty excited about it. But, yeah, Taipei is the next movie I’ll have out. I play the lead, Paul Chen.

So finally, an Asian guy as the main dude in a love story!
Yeah, full-on love story! It is! And I do have sex. I guess it’s time to show the world why there are a lot of Asian people in this world. We do have sex.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

From Twilight to Gook: How Justin Chon Found His Voice