By Courtney Cheng ’16
When David Joe Kim ’17 first heard that his friend, producer James Yi, wanted to call his new film “gook”, Kim was stunned. “You sure about that?” he’d asked Yi. “That’s derogatory!” Yi was insistent. In Korean, “gook” is the word for country. In English, the Korean word is used as a slur against East and Southeast Asian people.
It took Kim time to understand Yi’s adamance. In the film Gook, one of the protagonists explains the connotations of the word from multiple perspectives. This scene captures much of the essence of Gook, and can readily serve as an explanation for why Kim “sold everything for this film”—even while he was a student parent, attending UC Berkeley.
A Pool of Filtered Geniuses
When Kim arrived at Cal in 2015, he was scared. He had entered a “pool of filtered geniuses.” Everyone around him was brilliant, and he couldn’t stop asking himself the question, “Do I belong?”
Kim was a re-entry student. He’d grown up in the foster care system and was an army kid, so he’d lived in a myriad of places around the country. From Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he moved to Los Angeles, then Texas, and all around the Bay Area—Gilroy, San Jose, and finally Berkeley. He now declares himself a “Bay-destrian” and “proud Golden Bear.”
Although Kim felt daunted by a past that was far different from that of the typical UC Berkeley student, he didn’t let this slow him down. “I had to get this [question of belonging] out of my head, fast, and just start talking to people,” he said. “Everyone knows Berkeley is going to be tough. [Navigating the campus and your classes] is a daunting task, but you do your due diligence and you will find a light at the end of the tunnel.”
That wasn’t all Kim wanted to accomplish, however. He pushed himself out of his comfort zone to talk to people—students, alumni, and faculty alike—and form relationships that would later become the cornerstone of his Berkeley experience. After graduating, Kim still views the campus as his stomping grounds and finds himself closely tied to his professors, particularly English professor Lyn Hejinian. Professor Hejinian also has equally fond memories of Kim.
“He is one of the most assiduously responsible and hardworking students I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Hejinian said. During the two semesters she had Kim as a student, she recalls that Kim missed just one class. “And that was when his baby was born.”
Hejinian recognized Kim’s innate curiosity about the materials they read, and could tell from his frequent visits to her office hours that he was a student who “so wanted to do well.” The work Kim completed with Hejinian—most notably a close reading analysis of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All [By the Road to the Contagious Hospital]”—was what prepared him for the path he began pursuing outside of Berkeley as an executive producer of a film.
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
—from William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”
“I would credit Cal with helping a fairly serious man find the freedom to pursue his creative passions,” Hejinian said, when she learned of Kim’s involvement with Gook. “He has developed the confidence to follow his interests.”
My Assets, My Farm, My Everything
In June 2016, Yi pitched Kim the script for a film he called his “baby.” For Kim, with a son at home, the word “baby” resonated. He could already imagine how important this project was to Yi.
After hearing what Yi had to say, Kim was a quick sell. “I believed in the quality of the product [Yi and Justin Chon were producing],” Kim recalled. And so, he “sold everything for this film…. My assets, my farm, my everything is in this film,” he laughed.
With that, Kim became one of the film’s investors, executive producers, and extras. He flew down to Los Angeles from Berkeley several times in 2016 to help work on the film and guide its direction.
[Gook is a] great film to show how the 1992 LA race riots weren’t just about black and Koreans. It’s a dynamic no one really touched upon,” Kim explained. “[The film is] touching on all kinds of human emotions, and we’re hoping that it really gets to the audience.”
Kim wasn’t wrong to put his all behind this film. Gook won a Sundance Award in January 2017 and enjoyed a sold-out week-long showing in select Bay Area theaters in late August. After showings, Yi held Q&A sessions with other members of the production team. At the Berkeley Q&A session at Shattuck Theaters, one of the audience members was so excited about the film he called out “My man, you represented my people so good!”
It was the response that Kim had been hoping for, and appreciated given the racial dynamic in his film. He added quickly that he hopes other viewers will also “embrace this film for its human qualities, not just for its racial epithets.”
A Proud Golden Bear
Kim’s involvement with Gook is nearing an end, but he still has his sights set on the film industry and on Berkeley. He’s currently putting to paper a document about his own life and unique upbringing, hoping that he can someday present it to the directors and producers he knows. He hopes to someday turn his writing into something bigger, but knows well from his time at Berkeley that receiving and responding to critical feedback is far more important than producing something amazing in the first draft. “It takes time,” Kim acknowledged, “but I’m willing to put in that time.”
As for Berkeley, Kim still lives in the area, and intends to give back to the Cal community as much as he can by attending alumni networking events in the Bay Area. Cal students should take advantage of the opportunities they have, he stressed. “You don’t get anywhere without knowing someone, and you’re not going to get as far as you want without that team mentality.”
Photos courtesy of David Joe Kim
Videography by Marica Petrey