A/N: I broke this up into three parts; Part 1 is some background information and personal opinion on the 1992 Rodney King riots from my perspective as a 40+ year resident of SoCal. Part 2 is a non-spoiler quick review of the movie, and Part 3 will include a detailed synopsis of the movie and some of my thoughts after watching.
It’s important to know that although “Gook” is one of the worst epithets you can call someone of Asian descent–it’s equivalent to calling a black person the “N” word in my book–the word means “country” in Korean. Hangook (한국) is Korea, Migook (미국) is America (“Beautiful Country”). It was the GI’s who fought in Korea and later in Vietnam who corrupted the words “Saram Migook”–“American Person” into the ugly racial slur.
Sa-I-Gu (사 이 구) is based on Korean numbers–literally 4-2-9, and is how many Korean-Americans refer to the LA riots, similar to how many Americans refer to the September 11 World Trade Center attack as 9-11.
To really understand the LA Riots of 1992, it’s important to know it wasn’t all about the Rodney King verdict. There were a number of factors that played into the violence that occurred over three days and left a section of Los Angeles in ruins, and a deep mistrust of the police that still exists to this day.
Once upon a time, South Central LA was a nice place to live. After WWII, manufacturing jobs in the area (aka jobs not requiring a college degree) along with aerospace jobs were plentiful and well paid. Small (~1200 sq. ft) one-story houses in tidy neighborhoods were affordable with only one wage-earner in a family. In fact, my ex-husband’s parents moved to the area back in the early ’60’s soon after they got married at the ripe old age of 19! They had enough money to purchase a larger, older house on a double size corner lot. My ex-husband had great memories of that house and the neighborhood as a young child.
Unfortunately, things began to change. The good blue collar jobs began to move elsewhere. The end of the cold war meant the aerospace industry disappeared as well. High-density apartments were built. Crime increased–and by the mid-1970’s, it was a less than desirable place to live. When my former mother-in-law was robbed at gunpoint of her week’s grocery money with 2 small children in tow in 1973, that was it for them. They immediately sold the house and moved south to a part of Orange County considered then to be the “exurbs” and bought a safe but much smaller home on a small lot near a string bean farm. (All houses now–no farms anywhere!)
You can use your imagination to figure out that by 1992, South Central LA was a disaster zone. Crime, drugs, and gangs had taken over. The neighborhood was now 50% Black, with a sizeable number of Hispanics, a few Asians, and even fewer Caucasians. Banks would not loan money to start businesses in this crime filled area. It was becoming a wasteland–desperately poor, no jobs, and few businesses.
Many Koreans immigrated to the US during the 1960’s-1980’s in search of a better life for themselves and their children. They often pooled their money together to open a business. (There might have also been a distrust of banks–watch “The Best Hit” to see the modern-day version of a Korean bank going under and not honoring a check.) Then they made agreements between themselves as to who bought a business first and got it up and running, pay back the seed money into the group, and then someone else would buy another business. I’ve seen this before in K-dramas, and I knew about this process from my uncle. He knew exactly how this worked from living in South Vietnam for 10 years and owning a business there. In my local area, Little Saigon was built up from literally nothing in the mid-70’s to a thriving shopping and business area because of immigrants banding together and pooling their funds.
The less-well-off and/or non-connected immigrants went for the cheap businesses in the roughest neighborhoods. Korean immigrants began to buy small businesses in depressed areas of LA like shoe stores, liquor stores, laundromats, donut shops….and the businesses flourished. A strong work ethic and a lot of long hours went into making the business successful and to earn money so they and their kids could have a better life.
I knew how hard immigrants worked and the importance they placed on education from my own family experience. I heard many tales from my grandparents who immigrated from Canada in 1946 about how hard they worked for years to have a better life than they would’ve ever had in Canada, and how my Dad was determined to get good grades and go to college so he would have a better life than his parents.
The locals in South Central saw the Korean shopkeepers prospering and obtaining more and more businesses and a lot of envy and resentment occurred. So did a lot of armed robberies. Shopowners bought guns to protect themselves and their families–and their investment. Add in the language barrier and cultural differences, and the anger began to build steadily.
In 1991, just after the Rodney King beating took place, a black teenage girl by the name of Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head and killed by a South Central Korean liquor store owner who thought the girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice worth less than two dollars. (Keep this in mind…the movie has a direct parallel.) I’ll let you read about the details over at the Wikipedia link; it’s the most unbiased account I could find. This store had been robbed many times before so the owners were especially vigilant. Contrary to the claim of self-defense (there was a fight between the two women before the shooting) the CCTV camera evidence showed that the owner was never in any real danger from the teenager. Latasha died with cash in her hand. In addition, the gun used in the incident had been (illegally) altered to have a ‘hair trigger’, so even a slight touch was going to make the gun fire. The jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommended the maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. However, the judge (a white woman) completely disregarded the jury’s recommendation and gave her no jail time; only five years probation, a token fine of $500, and 400 hours of community service. The black community was outraged. I remember my then-husband and I were shocked. How the heck did the judge come to that decision? No one else–no matter their skin color–would get zero jail time for a killing like this. My opinion? Sixteen years was understandable but on the harsh side; no jail time was certainly not right either. More fuel for the violence: The light sentence was upheld by an appeals court a week before the riots began.
The four police officers who beat Rodney King were all given not-guilty verdicts by a predominantly white jury in an affluent LA suburb. (The trial had been moved out of LA due to the extensive media coverage.) The verdicts were widely televised in the late afternoon on Wednesday, April 29, 1992, and in the matter of a few hours, the violence began–including the brutal beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was literally at the wrong place at the wrong time. By sundown on the first night, the craziness was in full force, and the looting and destruction had begun. The police pulled out of the area and did not respond to any calls. The firefighters wouldn’t go in either since it wasn’t safe, so if a building caught on fire, it burned to the ground.
Just like in the movie, everyone was glued to their TV from the time the verdicts were announced. The networks broke from the regular programs to show the rioting, burning, and looting. It was surreal for me to take my two-week-old son and 22-month-old daughter outside our home, look to the west and see the smoke-darkened sky late that afternoon, and the orange glow from the burning buildings at night. We lived about 25 miles away; far enough that we weren’t personally affected, but close enough to be concerned. My then-husbands workplace was less than 10 miles from the city of Paramount where “Gook” is set. One of the most haunting images shown on TV were the Korean shopkeepers armed with automatic weapons up on the rooftops, trying to protect their businesses since the police weren’t responding. (Keep this point in mind as well.)
The business owners were derided in the press for being vigilantes, but no one with a functioning brain bought that for a second. Everyone I knew applauded and supported the courageous Korean business owners for doing what the police would not do. Korean-Americans were understandably angry about the lack of protection from the police.
Here are two ahjussis on the roof of the California Market on 5th St. and Western Avenue, May 1, 1992:
The looting and violence continued the next day. It should be noted that alcohol was a primary target of the looters. Other items, like TV’s or furniture, took a back seat to the number of liquor bottles/cans stolen, although certainly those items were stolen, as well as lots of expensive athletic sneakers. (Another point to keep in mind.) Other disturbing images shown extensively in newspapers and on television included parents stealing diapers and formula for their children from the local stores. No schools or stores were open and business had come to a standstill due to the violence. Black shop owners put signs in their windows: “Black-owned business” thinking it would protect them, but even those shops were looted and/or burned. (link to many pics of the riots here.)
A Fedco store my BFF and I used to shop at when I went to school at UCLA was looted and then burned to the ground.
Fedco was a cross between a Target and a Costco; they are no longer in business.
That really got to me. I’d been in that store dozens of times. I never felt unsafe going there. But watching it being destroyed on live TV was very unnerving. Ironically, I now drive through that intersection every time I go to my BFF’s house; the ginormous Target store that was recently built there has the scariest looking spiked-iron fence around the parking lot.
After the National Guard and the army were called in to restore order, the looting and fires were pretty much over by the weekend. Korean businesses were disproportionately destroyed in the riots-45% of all the businesses that were destroyed by fire and looting were Korean owned. Many of the businesses never returned–a few fled north to the San Fernando Valley but more came south to Orange County, where I live. From 2000 to 2012, the Korean population in the OC grew by 75%; only Los Angeles County has a higher Korean population in the US. (link) Irvine has excellent schools and newer housing developments, with many public parks. Better yet, it had a low crime rate, making it a prime destination. The Fullerton/Buena Park/Cypress/La Palma Korean community also grew exponentially, probably also because of the highly rated schools and relative safety; Garden Grove’s Korean population has remained relatively stable. Interestingly, I am starting to see small signs of revitalization in the GG neighborhood; a few really run down buildings have been torn down and new ones have been/are being built in their place in the last 4-6 months.
Black people also left the South Central LA area in droves after the riots. In search of affordable single family homes, relative safety and decent schools, many moved to the ‘exurbs’ north of LA like the Lancaster/Palmdale area. Others moved east to the Moreno Valley/Riverside/San Bernadino area for the same reasons. Not unexpectedly, government programs like “Rebuild LA” never delivered on their promises of jobs, improved infrastructure or incentives for businesses to move into the area, leaving large areas vacant and destroyed for years before eventually being rebuilt. (Great article on what happens when politicians try to make everyone happy and the resulting massive failure here.)
Some of my own friends didn’t fare too well after the riots. One of my friend’s brothers was in a really bad place because the business he worked for and his home were burned down, another lost his workplace as well when it was torched, and another stayed with a friend until Sunday for safety–and came home to a looted apartment.
I was lucky enough to find out about this movie after randomly checking the local theater listings. It was playing in Irvine on a Sunday afternoon with a 45 minute long Q&A session after the showing by Justin Chon who wrote and directed the movie. He explained a lot of things about the movie and gave some amazing BTS info on how an independent, low-budget film is made. Knowing that his own father (who has a major role in the movie) lost his athletic shoe distribution business in the riot and that Justin watched everything happen during the riots back in 1992 on TV as an 11-year-old definitely added to the interest factor for me. (I believe that his family was living safely in Irvine in 1992.) The audience was diverse; a few black people, a few more white people, and the rest Korean or other Asian. The large theater was over half filled, pretty darn good for an indie film on a late summer weekend afternoon. Many like me were 50+, meaning they had significant memories of the event, whether they lived locally or not. The questions were very respectful even though the opinions on the riots, the root causes and the current state of racial affairs in the US were wide-ranging.
Lots of people liked this movie. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance movie festival and took several more awards at other 2017 film festivals. It was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn distribution and that allowed this independent micro-budget film to be shown in theaters all over the US in August of 2017. I got the feeling Justin Chon thought he got the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket when the film got nationwide distribution.
“Gook” is not a perfect movie. However, it’s still worth the watch. It’s got some weird segments of Kamilla (later Eli and Daniel too) dancing around, which seem pretentious and IMHO, don’t fit well with the movie. I’ve said before I have zero cinematic taste; I am sure it is ‘artsy’ but I am such a literal person, it’s frustrating to watch. With only a 90 minute running time, every minute counts! When the movie sticks to the story, it really delivers. It’s a compelling watch for someone like me who has their own memory of the LA riots. No rioting is actually shown; there’s burning buildings and smoke in the background which is very accurate for the area the film took place–the periphery of the South Central LA area. The film is entirely in B&W, which could seem overly pretentious but actually gives a feeling of looking back in time, and lends an authentic gritty feel as well. The ending is nearly perfect and should be studied by K-drama writers–although some critics disagreed with me. The language is ear-blistering but accurate for the place, the time, and the characters. I didn’t have a problem with it. The violent scenes of Eli and Daniel getting repeatedly beaten while they don’t fight back are difficult to watch. If I had to rate this film: “R” for the language and violence; appropriate for a mature 17 and up crowd only. It would be an excellent discussion starter for older teens.
There was a great deal of praise for the young actress who played Kamilla by the movie reviewers. She deserves every bit of that praise, although I am used to the child actors/actresses in K-dramas being so good, I expected nothing less than a stellar performance. The real scene stealer for me was Justin Chon’s father. Every scene he was in, he was the one to watch. I wish the movie could have been just a little longer (or the wasteful scenes cut) so we could see his reaction as the shoe store burnt down, or give wise counsel to Eli and Daniel in the aftermath of the rioting and the loss of the store.
I also want to commend whoever was in charge of the props for this movie. On a minimal budget, the props were very authentic. The tube-style TV’s, the pagers, the VCR’s, and the furnishings of the houses shown were accurate early ’90’s items.
There was plenty to contemplate while watching the movie. What really constitutes a family? How far should you go to defend your business? Is it worth a life, whether your own or someone else’s? When and/or why should protests change from peaceful to violent? Do violent protests solve any issues? What drives people to become so angry they feel there is no other way to express it except to destroy someone else’s property or take their life? Why do rioters burn down their own (or someone else’s) neighborhood, and does it really change anything? How much of racism is ignorance of another culture, and how much is malice? (Check out this essay by Justin Chon on racism in Hollywood.) I don’t have any of the answers to these questions brought up by “Gook”–and there are certainly no simple answers either.
“Gook” is available to rent/buy on iTunes or Amazon video. It is fairly pricey for a rental ($5.99 USD) but certainly cheaper than a theater ticket.
Here’s a trailer:
I wanted to put screencaps of certain scenes in my review, but the fear of being busted for some kind of copyright violation kept me from doing so. I’ve never reviewed a US film that I could fully screencap like a Kdrama review. I am merely an amateur blogger who means no harm–but the law is the law and I don’t want to run afoul of it. I put in a few pics I found on Google and credited them appropriately.
Side note: Justin said that the majority of this movie was filmed in Gardena, CA. If you note the businesses in the background, the ‘shoe store’ is near the corner of Rosecrans and Van Ness. I took screenshots of Google Earth to give the reader a feel for the neighborhood.
Mr. Kim’s liquor store:
Eli and Daniel’s shoe store (here it’s a used car lot) is a little farther down on the right by the flags. Note the car seat/bench outside just like in the movie, the gated chain link fence, and palm trees:
Eli (Justin Chon) and his younger brother Daniel (David So) are two twenty-something Korean-American brothers running a low-end shoe store in the Paramount area of Los Angeles in 1992.
Eli is a typical first-born hyper-responsible guy, but he’s not above doing a shady deal with another local dude to score some cool athletic shoes. He buys them out of the back of a truck (!) to resell at the store. He’s trying to get the box of shoes in his tiny Toyota Corolla when he spots the local Hispanic gang members driving by in their late ’70’s low-rider. He doesn’t get in his car (I suspect they’d beat him and steal the car) and instead opts for the beating only–it’s the first of many in this film. There is no attempt to fight back; rather he curls up and endures the punches and kicks. Sigh.
Daniel is much more laid back, likes to flirt with the local ladies, and kinda-sorta helps his brother out, but his big dream is to be an R&B singer. (His voice is darn good.) I wondered at first why these two were running the shoe store and weren’t attending college like typical 1.5 or second-gen immigrant kids, but their dad was shot and killed in an armed robbery of the store a few years back when he refused to hand over the contents of the cash register. His employee was also killed. Now the boys have taken over the store. (No mention of their Mom.)
Eli and Daniel are repeatedly threatened and savagely beaten by both Hispanics and Blacks in their neighborhood. It is disturbing to watch these two get punched and kicked over and over again–and they don’t fight back. I completely get this on one level–fighting back will only merit a worse beating later on–but it’s frustrating to watch. People used to ask me why I didn’t fight back when my ex-husband hit me–like that would have made him stop. I knew deep down it would only escalate the violence, and I think that Eli and Daniel understand that dynamic too.
Kamilla (Simone Baker) is an 11-year-old black girl in the neighborhood who spends as much time as she can hanging around the shoe store. Her older gangster/hoodlum brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and overburdened older sister Regina (Omono Okojie) pay zero attention to her, except to bark at her to go to school and stay out of their way. Keith repeatedly warns Kamilla to not hang out with Eli and Daniel and to avoid the local mini-market because it is also run by a Korean. Kamilla has to search around for some pocket money for her breakfast and lunch because there is no food in the house. Where is their Mom? She was the employee killed at the shoe store on that fateful day when it was robbed. Keith holds a major grudge toward the brothers, blaming their father’s refusal to cough up the dough to the criminals as the reason his mom is gone. He works at a local burger joint, but it seems his real job is basically being the leader of the local black gang of thugs. (No mention of their Dad.)
Side note and guilty admission–I assumed at first that Eli and Daniel’s dad was married to Kamilla’s mom (second marriage for both), and they died (working) together in the shoe store. I thought that Kamilla was the daughter of that relationship, and that’s why Eli and Daniel were so close to her since they were half-siblings. Keith was angry at the situation because she favored them over him. That whole concept left me with my mouth hanging open! I remember thinking, “Now this is real, true Korean Melodrama, slightly Americanized because it’s second-generation, but recognizable nevertheless. Dayum, this writer/director has got it going on!” Obviously, I have watched one too many daily K-dramas! I wasn’t the only one confused. In fact, the very first question asked of Justin Chon in the Q&A session was about the relationship between Kamilla’s mom and Eli’s dad! Good thing I kept my mouth shut because I really wanted to tell Justin how much I liked that plot twist.
Kamilla makes a stop at the local liquor store/mini mart to get some breakfast snacks. She runs into instant hassle from Mr. Kim, the crabby ahjussi who runs the store (Chon Sang aka Justin Chon’s RL father). He grumbles but (illegally) sells her a pack of cigarettes (I’m hoping those are for her brother) and a bottle of juice. Kamilla also tells Mr. Kim that there are “taggers” outside spray painting his store, and he runs outside to check, swearing profusely.
Side note: We used to have “taggers” around when I lived in my rooftop apartment back in the late ’90’s in the Sillimdong-OC ‘hood; they would mark up mostly bare walls and fences with spray paint or permanent markers. The apartment manager used to paint over the mess ASAP, and I did it myself later on when she became too ill. The faster we covered it up, the better we all felt. Seeing our apartment complex full of graffiti always made me and my kids upset. The Graffiti Abatement Team from the city took way too long, so we took matters into our own hands. Plus, we matched the paint better. When the two ‘tough-guy’ neighbors lived there, there was no tagging/spray-painting and both the Hispanic and the Asian gangs left our place alone for fear of the certain beat-down if they were caught by those two guys. After those good neighbors moved away, our complex became a constant target.
Next stop for Kamilla is the shoe store. After a quick fib that she has the day off because her teacher is out marching in support of Rodney King (great idea on her part, because there is probably some truth involved) Daniel lets her skip school. I found it interesting that the brothers barely nagged her to go to school, but instead let her help out at the store. Obviously, this is not some special occasion–it seems to happen regularly. Mr. Kim busts into the shoe store, angrily accusing Kamilla of stealing Twinkies from his store, and a fight ensues. Daniel tries to break them up but fails miserably. The fiery altercation draws out Eli from the storeroom to confront Mr. Kim.
It took my breath away to see Eli show zero respect to his elder, and the F-bombs they traded back and forth made the audience gasp in shock! After years of watching K-drama, it really messed with my mind to see this scene. It’s so unfamiliar to see blatant disrespect and bad language used in front of an elder. The conversation is in both Korean and English. (mostly English, Korean parts are subbed).
During the Q&A session, Justin Chon said his dad used to be a child/young adult actor in South Korea, but gave it up due to the lack of money to be made when he got married. What a shame–he’s a fantastic actor. I doubt he will go back to acting after this movie, although I think that would be a great idea. Justin also said that he really had to coax his father into appearing in the movie. Mr. Chon didn’t understand at first why his son wanted to make this movie about such a painful event. (remember he lost his business in the riots.) The question was also posed to Justin about how he filmed the scene where he and his dad’s character were swearing so angrily and profusely at each other, but he kind of brushed it off to being professional.
Back at the shoe store, Eli angrily asks Kamilla if she stole the Twinkies, and she admits that she did! Ah Geez! Eli gets heated and tells her to go to school–he’s not her babysitter. Kamilla promises to pay him back, then offers to work at the store that day ‘for free’. Daniel shoos her out the door and tells her to give his bro a couple of hours to cool off. Pretty soon she’s sweeping the store, and fixing the “Buy Juan, get Juan free” signage, lol! As the store gets busier, she runs shoes back and forth for the brothers, and it’s obvious that she’s a big help to them.
The local Hispanic gang members pick this morning to vandalize Eli’s 1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S Trueno AE86 (absolutely a cultural icon from the “Initial-D” anime series, see link for details.) by spray painting a crude depiction of a man’s genitalia on the roof of the car along with the word “Puto” (vulgar Spanish slang for a male homosexual) on the trunk and “Gook” on the hood of the car. Ohhh, that made me mad! That drifter car is worth easy $12K+ if it’s in good condition! Collectors pay big money for those cars! Besides that, why, why, why, do people destroy someone else’s property? Just because they can? Even more depressing: Eli simply sighs when he sees what’s been done to his car. Just another day in the ‘hood…
Eli buys some fast food for Kamilla. (He knows she’s hungry or she wouldn’t have stolen the Twinkies. It’s been my experience that kids who steal food are usually genuinely hungry; kids who steal “stuff” do it for the thrill.) They take his car through a car wash to try and get the spray paint off, lol. It doesn’t work of course, but this scene really drives home that Kamilla hangs around Daniel and Eli because they pay attention and care about her, and don’t talk down to her. The joy they have as the water and soapsuds flow over the car’s windshield made me remember how much my kids loved to go through carwashes like that when they were younger. It’s a simple mundane thing…but they take their fun where ever they can find it. I know from my own life experiences: when you are poor, and life is difficult, you try to enjoy anything you can. Eli really does have a soft heart–he gives Kamilla the smallest pair of the prized sneakers (he gets a long hug from her which seems to embarrass him, lol) and a picture of his dad, her mom and her as a baby. Then Eli, Daniel and Kamilla waste precious movie time and dance around the shoe store to Hall & Oates “Maneater“!
However, Eli knows when to have fun, and when to draw the line. After Daniel practically gives several pairs of shoes away to a group of black ladies that flirt with him, they have a huge fight. Eli says that they are two months behind on the store rent…one more month of no rent and they are out of business. Uh-oh. The tense and emotional scolding that Eli gives his brother is enough to make Daniel cry. He takes off while Eli has a cigarette and broods in the car. Kamilla locks up the shop (she’s pretty responsible for an 11-year-old) and joins Eli. When she sees the spray-painted “Gook” on the hood of his car, she asks him about it. I like how Eli doesn’t go into the racial slur aspect. Instead, he talks about what it means in Korean; that it means “country”. I get the feeling that their family’s dream of coming to America has not gone the way they planned.
Eli needs Kamilla to go to Mr. Kim’s liquor store and get change for a $50 bill, and she’s scared to go back there after stealing the Twinkies that morning. She tries to get change at the other businesses, but she ends up back at the Liquor store. Mr. Kim doesn’t want to give her change, even when she begs and says it’s for Eli. Frustrated, Mr. Kim pulls a gun on her (Holy Cow, talk about an overreaction!) and she runs back to the shoe store. Eli locks up the shoe store and goes over to confront Mr. Kim for the second time that day.
Every scene between Eli and Mr. Kim is just amazing. In both English and Korean (they switch back and forth in rapid succession) Mr. Kim pulls out the “What would your father think of you?” card, and Eli hollers back that Mr. Kim needs to learn English! (Kdrama viewers will be able to pick up a few words of their Korean dialogue, and the Korean part is subtitled.) Eli then takes two large bottles of beer (aka “40’s“) and an entire box of Twinkies from the store while taunting Mr. Kim. After a time-wasting demonstration of the Toyota’s drifting ability by doing “donuts” in the parking lot, Eli and Kamilla eat some Twinkies and find out from a couple of locals about the looting that is starting to happen in South Central LA.
As night falls, and the rioting goes full force, Daniel gets rooked into going into the center of the riots by the guy who does his demo tape. He is dragged out of the car and brutally beaten by a group of black thugs, even though he is accompanied by a black guy. He tells them not to beat his friend up, but it’s too late.
As Daniel staggers toward home, Mr. Kim pulls up in a van. Whoa…!
In yet another fantastic scene, Mr. Kim barks at Daniel (in Korean) to get in the van. He’s got a CB radio and communicates back and forth with other Korean business owners in their neighborhood. (No cell phones, only pagers back then.) Daniel is shocked, then he asks Mr. Kim if he’s a spy (Ha!) or in the military. Turns out Mr. Kim and Daniel’s dad were in the Korean Marine Corps together! Double-Whoa! No wonder Mr. Kim is such a bad-ass!
Side note: Just like the USMC, the Korean Marine Corps is the toughest and most elite fighting unit of the military. It should also be mentioned that Chon Sang himself was in the Korean Marine Corps.
Meanwhile, Kamilla and Keith begin to argue after Keith finds the cool sneakers and the picture of their mom that Eli gave her earlier. Keith blows a gasket. He starts on a rant that the Koreans in their neighborhood are doing well and they are not. He fully blames Eli and Daniel’s dad for his mom’s death. He loses it when Kamilla tells him that Eli and Daniel are really her family because they care about her. He screams at Kamilla to get out of the house permanently. Kamilla leaves–but not before taking one of Keith’s guns from a drawer in his room and stashing it in her backpack. Omo. This can’t be good. My only question now is who’s gonna get shot and die with that gun.
Regina leaves a phone message for Eli that he shouldn’t stick around the shoe store tonight because of the riots going on. I have to give her props for that move, especially given Keith’s increasingly volatile temper.
Mr. Kim drops Daniel back at the shoe store and Mr. Kim offers Eli a cigarette. They sit on the car seat/bench outside the shoe store.
In Korean, Mr. Kim tells Eli that his dad and he started the shoe store back in the day–even though he thought the location wasn’t too good! Mr. Kim and Eli’s dad worked together at the shoe store (then an athletic shoe store) for about a year when Eli was little. (If you consider that Eli is probably 25-28 years old here, this would have been in the mid to late 1960’s.) Even back then, a young kid stole a pair of shoes and since that time, Mr. Kim has looked at all the customers as potential thieves. He feels guilty because he thinks if he was still working there at the shoe store, perhaps Eli’s dad and Kamilla’s mom would not have been shot. Mr. Kim calls him “Eli-yah” (this puts a lump in my throat because it’s said so tenderly) and says that his dad and he came to the US for a better life.
Later, Eli and Daniel talk to each other in the car. They are listening to Daniel’s demo tape (complete with dogs barking in the background, lol!) and Daniel is trying to tell Eli he wants to be an R&B singer when Kamilla comes running up. Completely out of breath, she manages to choke out that Keith and his band of thugs know about the stash of high-end sneakers Eli has at the store–and he’s coming for them. Eli wants to hide the shoes and protect the store, Daniel wants to give Keith the sneakers to pacify him since he’s already been beaten up twice today. The brothers get into a vicious fight, which Kamilla tries to break up, and she leaves with Daniel as Eli tries to pack up the sneakers. He doesn’t get too far–a group of Hispanic gang members takes several boxes of shoes at gunpoint, as Eli is trying to lock the gate.
Eli meets up with Daniel and Kamilla at the El Salvadorean restaurant (pupuseria) next to Mr. Kim’s liquor store. (See the pics at the beginning.) Friendly neighbor Jesus tells him the shoes are safe on the roof! Ah, did crafty Eli put decoy shoes in the boxes? He sure did, as the Hispanic gang members are shown grumbling about having stolen a bunch of women’s shoes. I love that Eli is street-smart. Eli tries to save the athletic shoes one more time, and he goes up on the roof and tosses down bags of shoes….except Keith and his thugs are pulling up. Eli hollers at Daniel to take Kamilla and drive away, but Kamilla scrambles up the ladder and hides on the rooftop with Eli and Daniel.
Keith is firing his gun into the air as he threatens Eli and Daniel. (What an idiot, does he not understand ‘what goes up will come down’?! And now I know he’s got more than one gun.) Eli is at the breaking point. He says to his brother: “I tried to keep the store…let’s start over…” and they proceed to throw the sneakers off the roof of the store (in slow motion, wasting more precious time) while Keith stands there looking confused.
Kamilla is upset that the brothers are going to sell the store. She reminds them that they told her she could hang out at the store anytime, and she angrily leaves as she accuses them of being liars. Keith and his minions take off, only to have Keith tell them to turn back to the shoe store. He gets out of the car and goes to the trunk where he has some Molotov’s ready to go in a crate. Uh, oh…One of the thugs throws a rock through the front window of the shoe store, and the glass shatters as Kamilla takes out Keith’s gun. She trips over the doorjamb and the gun goes off…
Everyone hears the gunshot, but Keith sees his sister in the doorway of the store and figures it out. Daniel tries to call 9-1-1, but there’s no response. Eli initially freezes in shock, then he helps Keith carry Kamilla to the car and they drive her to the hospital. Eli piggybacks her (pure Kdrama style) into the already overwhelmed ER, and there’s total confusion as Eli shouts for a doctor to help them. Finally, he is able to get a nurse and doctors’ attention, and they take Kamilla away.
Keith then turns on Eli, blaming him for his sister’s predicament! He savagely punches and kicks Eli who sobs piteously as he curls up in a ball in the hospital hallway. Holy Guacamole! Where is the hospital security guard?!?
I’ll be honest here–“Gook” may not have a ‘villain’, but Keith has no redeeming value in my eyes. Justin said in the commentary that he wanted to show that Keith and Eli were like two sides of the same coin, but I don’t buy that. It was Keith that was irresponsible and who didn’t lock up his gun(s), not Eli. It’s Keith’s bad temper that makes him use his fists and his gun to solve problems in his life while he whines that he deserves more than he has. In fact, to prove my point about Eli being the better person, Eli crawls over to Keith after Keith finishes beating him and tells him to stop blaming himself! Wow.
As the sun rises the next morning, Eli manages to drive back to the shoe store and tells his brother that Kamilla didn’t make it. Then he says, “Get the Molotov’s”. Eli lights one and throws it through the already broken window. The brothers watch the shoe store go up in thick black smoke and flames.
Thoughts after the movie:
I loved the ending. Their father’s dreams of a better life in the US were becoming a burden to his sons, not a blessing. The American Dream cost Eli and Daniel’s father his life, the life of Kamilla’s mom and almost both of his sons. Time to walk away and start over. I doubt there would be insurance money, and even if there was, they probably wouldn’t pay out anyways because of the riots. I normally like less open endings, but it works for me here.
On the second watch, I noted that it was mentioned that Kamilla doesn’t really have any memories of her mom. Hmm. I’d have to guess that she was less than 4 when her mom was killed; if she’s 11 now, that was 7+ years ago. So that means Eli and Daniel have been taking care of the shoe store for at least 7 years. Eli (and possibly Daniel) must have been 18+ at that time, or they would have not been legal adults and able to run the store. It also means Mr. Kim has sat there behind the bulletproof plexiglass of his mini-mart and watched his Marine Corps best buddy’s kids struggle for many years as orphans. I gotta wonder why Mr. Kim didn’t step in to help if he and Eli/Daniel’s dad were such good friends and business partners/colleagues.
I have also thought about what might have happened to Eli, Daniel, and Keith after the rioting ended. Heh, I’ve had several months to contemplate this! I can’t imagine anything good happening for Keith. He was such a loser; he resorted to violence both at home (he pushes his sisters around and throws things) and in the street, his temper was white-hot, and he was self-centered. I am sure he would end up in prison, maybe even dead. Eli and Daniel are more difficult for me. Neither of them seems like the type to go back to school. I could see Mr. Kim helping Eli after the rioting was over, both in a financial way and in a paternal way. I can imagine Mr. Kim mentoring Eli while having him work at the liquor store; then arranging a loan for him to get started with his own business. Would Daniel keep pursuing his R&B dream? Maybe for a while–but he will probably work for his brother or someone else. He doesn’t seem the type to go out and “make stuff happen”. If Eli, Daniel, and Keith were real persons, they would be close in age to me by now–early to mid 50’s. Would successful, responsible Eli be living the suburban life with a lovely wife, two kids, and an SUV in the driveway in a gated community like the ones in Irvine–never mentioning his difficult early years to his privileged kids who have no idea their Dad grew up in the ‘hood? Would Keith make a 180-degree turnaround in his life, stay out of prison and have a goal for his life?
The thing I really took away from this film is that at the end of the day, it’s all about the individual choices you make. You can’t be responsible for anyone else’s behavior other than your own. Keith blamed everyone else for what happened in his life, including the death of his sister. However, it was his actions that really set everything into motion. If Keith controlled his temper and (most importantly) locked up his gun, things would have turned out differently. Eli was sometimes not the most sympathetic character, but he didn’t solve his problems with a weapon or by destroying/stealing someone else’s property. He never uttered a single word of self-pity, nor did he blame the Black or Hispanic gang members for his problems. The answer to the anger, the racism, and the violence doesn’t come from more laws and regulations but from inside each person’s heart. (Great essay at this link)