- Hannah McGill
- 12 March 2018
Justin Chon's energetic second feature recalls early Spike Lee but feels patchy
The spirit of early Spike Lee infuses this patchy but energetic sophomore feature by writer-actor-director Justin Chon (Man Up). It's 1992, and the incendiary verdicts exonerating numerous Los Angeles police officers from responsibility in the violent beating of taxi driver Rodney King are being handed down.
As looting and rioting kick off in South Central, Korean-American brothers Eli (played by Chon himself) and Daniel (David So) tend their family shoe store in a predominantly black suburb. Neighbourhood girl Kamilla (Simone Baker), neglected at home, bunks off school to help. There's direct irony in the fact that the black community, in the throes of outrage at institutionalised oppression, is still prone to its own prejudices: the titular slur is sprayed on Eli's car after he upsets a customer, while another customer drops the backhanded compliment, 'He's pretty cute for an Asian.'
The film's more confrontational elements – violence simmers within virtually every interaction, whatever its racial dynamic; locals receive pager messages promising 'free stuff downtown' once the rioting starts; other members of the community are providing information to the police – coexists with bursts of sweetness, as when the central characters dance spontaneously in the shop, or take childlike glee in using a carwash. The acting is largely terrific, with Chon and Baker particularly lively and affecting in their roles, and there's insight and verve in the way that the film evokes the sort of random bursts of goofy joy that tend to live in the memory whatever negative context they occur in.
However, the film goes off in all directions like a mistimed firework display, juxtaposing horseplay with gloopy sentimentality with graphic violence, and the use of the F-bomb as punctuation is less gritty than it is numbing. There's a lot of good stuff here, but it feels thrown together, and blunt rather than nuanced in its impact.
Limited release from Fri 16 Mar.