Los Angeles Times

They needed to tell stories themselves

Believing their community had been portrayed wrongly, Korean American filmmakers took charge.

- By Jen Yamato jen.yamato@latimes.com Twitter: @jenyamato

Edward Jae Song Lee was a month away from celebratin­g his 19th birthday when he was killed in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, caught in a crossfire of bullets reportedly while attempting to defend a Koreatown pizza parlor from looters on the second day of chaos and confusion that followed the April 29 acquittal of four LAPD officers for the beating of Rodney King.

Lee’s mother saw her son’s body, lying on the sidewalk in a black-and-white photograph in the Korea Times the next day. But as she told filmmaker Dai Sil KimGibson, in the seminal 1993 documentar­y “Sa-I-Gu,” she clung to the hope that it wasn’t him.

“This couldn’t be my son,” Jung Hui Lee said in the film, named for the Korean term for that fateful day, Sa-I-Gu, or April 29. Eddie had left the house that day in a white Tshirt and blue jeans, but the man in the photo wore a black shirt.

It wasn’t until Lee saw the full image in color, taken by Los Angeles Times staff photograph­er Hyungwon Kang, that she knew: “What looked black in the Korean newspaper was my son’s blood.”

Twenty-five years later, few films have been made about that devastatin­g moment in Los Angeles history. Even rarer is the film that goes beyond stereotype­s to tell the stories of the people caught up in the violence from all of the city’s diverse communitie­s. Among the least well-known stories are those of Korean American business owners who found their American dreams in the sights of looters over the course of several lawless days that led to the ransacking and burning of more than 2,200 Korean-owned businesses.

Kim-Gibson, 79, still remembers hearing Lee’s heartbreak as she documented the devastated mother’s story, one of several Korean women whose personal tragedies lend “Sa-I-Gu” its enduring power — and a rare window into the Korean American experience of the L.A. uprising.

“I was dumbfounde­d,” the filmmaker told The Times recently ahead of the 25th anniversar­y of the riots. “I was speechless. God, what can you say to a story like that? If it really touches you at the core of your soul, you can’t talk. All I could do was sit there in complete silence, with my heart and with my soul pounding.”

The Korean-born Kim-Gibson was living in Washington when the riots broke out.

“The mainstream media made it sound as if the 1992 L.A. riots were caused by black-Korean conflict,” she said. “That boiled my blood. Black-Korean conflict was one symptom, but it was certainly not the cause. The cause of that riot was black-white conflict that existed in this country from the establishm­ent of this country.”

Media reports that pitted the African American community against their Korean immigrant neighbors, Kim-Gibson felt, “were tremendous­ly wrong. So I decided I could not have the mainstream media tell our stories. We had to go and tell it ourselves.”

Borrowing camera equipment and $5,000, she traveled to Los Angeles with two fellow female filmmakers, Christine Choy and Elaine H. Kim, seeking the untold perspectiv­e on the aftermath of the riots from Korean women. “Sa-IGu,” released a year later in 1993, tells a side of the riots absent from depictions in traditiona­l films of and about those six days in April and the tinder box of clashing racial tensions and economic pressures that left scores dead, 2,000 injured and caused an estimated $400 million in damage to Koreanowne­d businesses.

Ten years later, Kim-Gibson returned to Los Angeles with Charles Burnett, director of the definitive Watts film “Killer of Sheep,” to document the legacy of the riots from a wider spectrum of people living in the ethnically diverse enclave. In their 2004 documentar­y “Wet Sand,” the filmmakers spoke to Korean Americans, African Americans and Latinos. To her dismay, Kim-Gibson found that certain tensions remained.

“It made me very sad. Koreans were oppressed, and when their businesses started flourishin­g they hired a lot of Latinos and then they did not treat those Latinos as well as they should have. Koreans should have learned better,” the documentar­ian said.

Filmmaker Justin Chon was 10 when the riots broke out. The “Twilight” actor, who wrote, stars in and directed the upcoming drama “Gook,” inspired by the events of the L.A. uprising, remembers watching news reports of looting on television from his home in Irvine. But it wasn’t until many years later that he fully grasped the situation his Korean immigrant father faced as the owner of a shoe store on the border of Paramount and East Compton.

“We didn’t get hit until the last day,” Chon said recently in Los Angeles. “As soon as it happened, he was there. People had seen it just spread. I was home watching the news, my dad was there, but it wasn’t like I thought, ‘My dad can die.’ I wondered, what does this mean for our family?”

“Gook,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in August by Samuel Goldwyn Films, stars Chon as Eli, one of two Korean American brothers who run their late parents’ store selling shoes to a mostly black clientele.

“The overarchin­g message is, ‘Look what happens when we don’t talk to each other,’ ” Chon said. “When we don’t have open discussion we lose what’s most precious to us and we lose sight of what’s important — what we stand for.”

“My film is a metaphor for now. It was all simmering. [Koreans] were just trying to survive. But so was the African American community.”

Greater understand­ing of all communitie­s touched by the riots is what filmmaker Grace Lee is after with her new interactiv­e documentar­y “KTOWN92,” which is part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, along with “Wet Sand” and “Gook.” An offshoot of a feature documentar­y about contempora­ry Koreatown, the project gives voice to the people who lived through the tumultuous uprising — beyond the iconic images of looters and vandals, shopkeeper­s on rooftops with guns, and mayhem in the streets from angry mobs destroying their own city.

“I have always been interested in the story of the L.A. riots [and] who gets to tell that story,” Lee said. “I was interested in seeing if I could both critique some of the media coverage that was really disturbing at the time and at the same time amplify and uplift other stories and perspectiv­es that haven’t really been shared with most people.”

Lee grew up outside of Los Angeles and remembers watching shocking images of the riots on the news, the rare depiction of Asian American life in the media dominated by sensationa­l footage of conflict and hysteria.

She’s now called Koreatown home for eight years; her latest films were born out of witnessing a vibrant multiethni­c melting pot in her own neighborho­od — far removed from the war zone of April 1992 and yet indelibly shaped by the legacy of the riots.

“To me it’s the beating heart of L.A. It’s still this immigrant enclave,” she said of Koreatown. “It’s a really vibrant community that to me reflects how much this experience that we have is informed by the immigrant experience. And to me, that immigrant experience really informs not just Los Angeles but California and also, I think, is a stand-in for where America is heading — or already is.”

 ?? Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times ?? JUSTIN CHON, right, and dad Sang Chon at a site where Justin filmed “Gook,” about the riots.
Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times JUSTIN CHON, right, and dad Sang Chon at a site where Justin filmed “Gook,” about the riots.

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