On the Radar

Justin Chon: ‘Strangebird’ on radar

Director/Star Justin Chon (credit: George Ko, Giant Robot Media) | Where My Heart Leads

“Do you want to watch gook?” my brother asked.

“What’s it about?”

“LA riots.”

(LA riots? Never heard of it.) “Oh. No thanks.”

As he was getting gook to play on tv, I looked it up. Halfway through the trailer, I called out from my room, “Ok, I’m watching. Start from the beginning, please.” 

The film plays, I’m like, hey this guy looks familiar. He’s the YouTuber.

Justin Chon felt like a ‘strange bird’ – quirky, yet real in his YouTube videos. He looked Asian, but wasn’t your ‘typical’ Asian kid – you can’t quite put a finger on him.

In his older YouTube intros, against, fun, child-like music he peeks out from a plastic dumpster, flips open the dumpster lid and leaps out with a bouquet of colorful balloons in one hand and a big, wide grin on his face. As if he’s going to “litter” the world with colorful balloons in ways you wouldn’t expect.

gook was refreshing

gook was refreshing. The storyline was refreshing. The cast was Korean Americans and African Americans. It tells the stories of real people – two Asian brothers who ran a shoe store in a dangerous neighborhood, their dreams, and particularly the friendship between one of the brothers and a young girl from the African American community set against the background of the 90s LA riots.

In this interview with Build Series, Justin Chon sheds light on what works influenced this film, the challenges he saw coming while writing the script, and how he found the actors in gook including the 11-year-old lead actress Simone Baker who was a natural.

Highlights from the interview:

Where did the idea of gook come from?

“Personally, my Dad has a business in Paramount, basically right across the bridge from East Compton. We got looted on the last day of the riots, and we got completely demolished and so when I heard that there were a few other LA riots films being made, and I’ve auditioned for some over the last 10 years, I just felt like there could be another unique perspective, which is from a Korean American, which I felt wasn’t being addressed.” 

More importantly for me, this film really is about friendship. It’s about friendship between Eli and Kamilla.”

(22:15) “I’m an amalgamation of what I’ve seen and experienced through film.”

Do you want to delve into other areas?

(22:40) “Yeah. I don’t want to be defined by one thing – like as an actor, I’ve done roles that are all over the place. And I would just like to be a story-teller and have content just kind of filter through my lens, which happens to be Asian-American male. And just to go back to this (gook), this film, it was very important to me because I represented two very under-represented demographics which are Asian-American males, and African American females. 

(27:39) “You know, films from me, I feel need to be filtered through me and if I am really passionate about it, then I think it will resonate with audiences so those are the type of materials and stories I am looking for to make as a director.”

Look forward to following what director/star/’strange bird’ Justin Chon shares and presents. Have you seen gook?

gook is on Netflix in the US; on HMVOD in Hong Kong.

photo credits: George Ko, Giant Robot Media.