Vulture’s Jada Yuan has an in-depth interview with our friend Justin Chon–who wrote, directed, and stars in GOOK which had a successful Los Angeles opening last weekend and rolls out to the rest of the country this weekend. GOOK is set during the 1992 L.A. riots and Justin spoke about everything from how that event impacted his family to the film’s controversial title. Here are some excerpts:
ON HOW IT FEELS TO BE ASIAN AMERICAN SINCE THE NOVEMBER 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.
ON WHY KOREAN IMMIGRANTS LIKE HIS FATHER HAD 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.
ON WHAT HIS FATHER DID DURING THE RIOTS:
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.
WHY HE TITLED HIS FILM ‘GOOK’:
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!
…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.
ON FIGURING OUT THAT HE HAD TO TELL THE STORIES HE WANTED TO SEE ON SCREEN:
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 HE WANTS TO DO POST-‘GOOK’:
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 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.
…(It’s) 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.
To read the whole interview, go to Vulture: From Twilight to Gook: How Justin Chon Found His Voice in His Own Painful Racial Past