With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Saturday, May 19, 2007

ACF 027: "West 32nd" Reviewed

John Cho as ambitious lawyer John Kim

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, West 32nd premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. The word I got is that the various screenings "consistently sold out" and that many would-be viewers had to be turned away. Not surprising for several reasons.

First off, Korean American Michael Kang is a New York City based director who attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His first film, The Motel (2005), garnered favorable reviews, won several awards and demonstrated that he was someone to keep an eye on. West 32nd, his sophomore effort, is about Korean organized crime; as far as I know, it's the first film to address this topic. And New Yorkers can't get their fill of hometown gangsters, no matter what the ethnicity.

The film starts with a fluid crane shot over "Korea Town," the block of West 32nd street where Korean businesses of various sorts are concentrated. Then there's some traveling steady-cam work going thru the narrow corridors of a "room salon" establishment, where wealthy and powerful men can relax and make important decisions while having their drinks poured by beautiful, smiling Korean women.

When the manager of the establishment goes outside and gets in his car, it's cut off by another vehicle. Shots ring out and the manager is left dead in the front seat of his vehicle as the other car speeds away.

Hostess Suki Kim (Jane Kim), lawyer John Kim (John Cho), up-and-coming gangsta Mike Juhn (Jun Kim) and another hostess in a room salon

We learn that a fourteen year old Korean boy, who we see in still photographs but never meet, has been arrested for the murder, which has all the hallmarks of a gangland execution. Enter lawyer John Kim (John Cho, known for his roles as the John "MILF" Guy #1 in American Pie and as Harold in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle). Kim offers to take on the case pro bono.

When the boy's sister Lila Lee (Battlestar Galactica's Grace Park) asks him why the firm he works for is willing to do this, he replies, "Because we can win." Of course there's more to it than that. See, his law firm stands to benefit from the good p.r. and he stands thereby to rapidly advance towards a partnership.

To prepare his case, the attorney goes to the Korea Town section of West 32nd, an area almost as alien to this "white bread" Korean yuppie as the far side of the moon. There he meets mid-level gangster Mike Juhn (Hong Kong born actor Jun Kim, here making his debut in a Western film). Though on different sides of the law, Juhn is every bit as ambitious in his world as the defense lawyer is in his. In fact, Juhn's just been promoted to the manager job vacated by the murder.

Juhn realizes that, given the nature of his "business" in the Korean underworld, having a connection with a lawyer who "owes him one" might come in handy in the future. So he introduces Kim to the ins and outs of the scene, but only so far and in such terms as suits his own needs.

When a witness to the shooting unexpectedly comes forth, the overriding desire of these two men from two different worlds to succeed erupts into violent conflict.

Actress Grace Park on location

Overall this is a pretty damned good crime caper. For me, some comments on the net (see the links below) are valid, while others aren't so much so. Mike Goodridge writes that the film, at roughly 90 minutes, is "too short to build a mythical portrait of an organized crime syndicate," which is true but kind of meaningless. At a panel discussion at The Korea Society after the film had premiered, director Kang spoke of wanting to do a Departed but having a Mean Streets budget, so I don't think he can be faulted on this count.

Erik Davis claims that since we never meet the accused kid, it's "impossible to feel sympathy for him or his grieving family." Not true by me. His mother and sister Lila serve as surrogates and their grief and concern is clear, strong and unmistakable.

More on the mark is Brian Liner's comment that the film's "plot holes result in some 'huh' moments," a point the Davis also makes. There are some plot holes, narrative lapses, or what-have-you, and that's always unfortunate. But they're not so numerous or severe as to significantly undermine the film. Weaken it, yes, a bit; but ruin it, not at all.

The film is predominantly in English, but a great deal of the dialogue is in Korean with English subtitles. This serves to keep the language used by different characters at different times and in different situations genuine and believable. It also allows for the viewer to be let in on some information that is withheld from particular characters, namely the lawyer.

The soundtrack's got that gangsta rap thing going for it. Seems like this kinda sound has become de rigeur in any hard-edged urban film featuring Asians. I don't care all that much for it, but totally agree that it is appropriate as used here. 

West 32nd explores the moral ambiguities of its two male leads as well as that of Lila, the accused's sister. And when ethics is irrelevant and the strength of the opposing wills is equal, victory goes to the player with the stronger hand. All of which makes for a fascinating tale. This film really deserves to be picked up for distribution in the U.S. and I strongly hope and believe that it will. When it does, give it a try. And keep an eye out for future projects from Mike Kang. I think he's a director who'll be giving us better 'n' better films for years to come.

West 32nd - imdb
Michael Kang, director - imdb, thereeler.com [video interview]
John Cho, actor [lawyer John Cho] - imdb
Jun [Sung] Kim, actor [gangster Mike Juhn] - imdb
Grace Park, actress [Lila Lee] - imdb
Jane Kim, actress [salon hostess Suki Kim] - imdb

Some other reviews:
Erik Davis @ cinematical.com
Brian Linder @ ign,com
Mike Goodridge @ screendaily.com

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