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With West 32nd, Michael Kang discovers that Hollywood has no monopoly on blockbuster financing. Meanwhile, CJ Entertainment finds willing collaborators in the Korean American community.
When Michael Kang's West 32nd premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007, the coordinates of Asian American cinema were immediately redrawn. Whereas most Asian American films are true American indies (low budget, locally-specific, quintessentially American), West 32nd is a transnational blockbuster. Co-produced with Korean powerhouse CJ Entertainment, West 32nd is as American as Chan is Missing, Better Luck Tomorrow, or any number of previous Asian American films, yet unlike those films, it conceives its audience as necessarily global.
The narrative reflects the production's transnational orientation. West 32nd follows a Korean American lawyer (played by John Cho) as he investigates New York Koreatown's seedy underbelly and discovers its dark Korean ties -- connections he feels alienated from as an American national. The conflict thus speaks in dual directions: to the anxieties of ethnicity in America, and to the tensions of what it means to be Korean in a global world. And ideally, the film could sell in both markets as well.
With the phenomenal rise of Korean cinema in the past 10 years, Asian American filmmakers -- Korean Americans in particular -- have turned across the Pacific for inspiration and financing. Meanwhile, Korean cinema sees Korean Americans as an opportunity for growth and diversification. The major players in forming these bonds have been the Pusan International Film Festival (with its Overseas Korean Foundation prize) and the Korean Film Council (with its Filmmakers Development Lab).
Kang is poised to lead the charge. The acclaim his feature debut The Motel received after its 2005 Sundance premiere led to a distribution deal and interest in his next film on both sides of the Pacific. His follow-up West 32nd features a cameo by Korean star Jeong Jun-ho and was released theatrically in Korea in November 2007. Kang recently won Pusan's Overseas Korean Foundation prize for his forthcoming picture, The Sea of Tranquility.
Meanwhile, West 32nd continues to play the festival circuit to eager audiences. At this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, West 32nd was the biggest seller of the fest, completely selling out the Castro Theatre, a 1400-seat movie palace.
APA caught up with Kang just before the screening. --Brian Hu
Interview with Michael Kang
March 16, 2008
Interview by Brian Hu
Video by Oliver Chien
Asia Pacific Arts: One of the seminars at this year's festival spotlighted the opportunity for Asian Americans going to Asia for work. I think your film, West 32nd, is really exemplary of this possible direction for Asian American cinema. At what point did you realize that this film was going to be a potential co-production?
Mike Kang: It wasn't so much my realization than the opportunity just coming up. When we finished the script for West 32nd, we did the normal shopping around in Hollywood and we realized that people didn't know how to react to it within the normal Hollywood system. We had a connection to CJ Entertainment in Korea. I gave it to Ted Kim, who runs the L.A. offices of CJ, and it just seemed like a perfect match. And from there, it's been really inspiring because a lot of films now like Wayne [Wang]'s film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, my friend Grace Lee's film [American Zombie], and Gina Kim's film [Never Forever] are starting this new wave of getting funding from Asia, which I think is hopefully the direction we can take it in the future because it opens up the possibility of stories we can tell. It's no longer dictated by what Hollywood thinks that Asian American is. It can now have international scope.
APA: What do you think the Korean side has to gain from such an exchange?
MK: I think that for Asian companies, it works on a lot of levels. One, Asian companies want to get their foot into Hollywood. I think on another level, CJ Entertainment had a relationship with Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, but I think they're seeing that the experiment in investing in a Korean American filmmaker actually makes more sense as a bridge between the two [industries]. They had invested a lot of money in August Rush, but I don't think they had an investment on a more personal level. And when I brought them the script for West 32nd, they found it really compelling. They understood the characters, they understood what the story was about, they understood about how it related to being Korean and not just Korean American.
APA: Because of that connection, did they try to have more creative input?
MK: Actually, they were very hands-off, which was great. The great thing about it was that I didn't need to explain the issues in the script -- they got it right away. I think that when I was shopping it around in Hollywood, nobody said it outright, but I think the feeling was “Why couldn't John Cho's character be white? Why can't we put Ashton Kutcher in there instead? The white man could go into the Asian world.” But to me, the whole point of the story is about that relationship between second generation Asian Americans to first and 1.5 generations. And that was never an issue with [C.J.]. On the plus side, we were able to get a pretty big cameo from a big actor in Korea, Jeong Jun-ho, who plays a small part in the film. We wouldn't have had that kind of access to him, if it weren't for CJ.
APA: Can you say a little more about the casting? Especially the casting of Jun Kim. How did you find him?
MK: We went to Korea to scout and do some casting, and it was pretty immediate. As soon as we met him, I knew he was the guy. There's a certain quality I look for in all actors, which is that there's something going on within their eyes. Jun pretty much showed up to the first meeting in character and he was totally down with it. He had grown up in Hong Kong. Up until now, he had done mostly dramas in Korea, and often got cast as the young lover, which is great for him, but at the same time there's another part of him that wasn't being explored, which was that side that understood what it was like to be stuck between two cultures -- not knowing what his place was and feeling that alienation. He brought that to the character of Mike.
APA: Was it hard to find actors in Korea who could speak English well?
MK: Yeah, we pretty much all of them when trying to cast the character of Mike. There are a lot who had been educated in the U.S. or in Toronto and a lot that had grown up here and gone back to become talent. It was a rare find to get Jun Kim who could not only speak both English and Korean fluently, but could also act.
APA: The theme of alienation and being an outsider is so prevalent in this film. As the filmmaker, you too were something of an outsider to both sides -- Hollywood and Korea. To what extent was John Cho's character personal to you?
MK: He's definitely a personification of some of my biggest issues. I grew up in New England in a predominantly white neighborhood and I didn't even have any Asian friends until I was well into college. I think that John's character is an extreme version of this, where he has a real alienation from any part of the culture. He can't speak the language, he doesn't know how to act or be within that culture, and gets seduced by it. That came from my own personal experience.
APA: Is that John Cho's own Korean in the movie?
MK: No, his Korean is… I wouldn't say it's functional. [laughs] But it's better than the character's. Like a lot of Asian Americans, he can understand a lot better than he can speak.
APA: And Grace Park also?
MK: Grace's Korean is pretty good. She talks to mom in Korean all the time. She could survive in Korea and not get hungry. [laughs]
APA: I'm curious about the reception of the film in Korea. How did it do in terms of the critics as well as box office?
MK: Critically, it did really well. They saw that this was a unique thing and there's now a greater tendency for Koreans now to feel a connection with Korean Americans -- to feel like we're all the same family even if we don't speak the same language. Box office wise, it was a little tricky. It was tricky for CJ because they weren't sure how to market it on a mass level. There was even a little hesitation in that. They didn't put it in as wide a release as I'd hoped they were going to, so it was hard for people to find. But then everyone who did see it, and all of the press that did see it, all seemed to connect with it and understand it. It reads very differently in Korea, because it really talks about the Korean American experience. To them, what they see as an American experience is very Hollywood and mainstream. The American dream is so perfect in all TV shows that get imported. This is saying no, there's another part to this. It's not always perfect, and there are things that you need to give up to be in successful in America.
APA: Are there certain stereotypes of Korean Americans within Korea? In Bollywood, the NRI is always rich and good looking, and in Chinese culture, the ABC is supposed to be the “cool guy.”
MK: Actually, they like to make fun of the Korean Americans. They're usually the comic relief in dramas and movies. Now, that's starting to change. There's a really popular actor now, Daniel Henney, who is changing that perception. Jun Kim is a rising star. They're starting to see us as equals. [laughs]
APA: Is John Cho well known in Korea?
MK: Harold & Kumar was never released. I think he was recognizable to a certain extent, but he was not hugely popular. It was mostly younger people who were aware of him, and mostly film people who were aware of him. But the mainstream people didn't really know who we was at all.
APA: What about Grace Park?
MK: When we released it, they'd just started showing Battlestar Gallactica, so she was getting more high-profile, but she was still pretty new to them.
APA: Do you know if they've gotten offers to work in Korea?
MK: I think that with Grace, because of West 32nd, Park Chan-wook is casting her in a short film as part of the New York, I Love You series. I think the film community there was very interesting in seeing West 32nd and seeing who was in there talent-wise. Grace landed that. I think John has received consistent offers in the past, but he's so busy here it's hard for him to go.
APA: Have you had offers?
MK: No, my Korean is… I would never be able to do a 100% Korean movie. I would love to, but it would be a very big challenge. Right now I'm actually producing a friend's film in Korea, which is the next step. West 32nd is about 30% in Korean and 70% in English, and this new one is going to be about 70% in Korean and about 30% in English.
APA: Is that a CJ co-production?
MK: No, this actually a smaller film. It's an indie film -- sort of like Swingers in Korea. It's being directed by my friend Woody Han. It's called Love Buzz. It's about the dating scene for 2nd generations Korean Americans in Korea.
APA: At what point did Teddy Zee become involved during the making of West 32nd?
MK: I met Teddy Zee when The Motel premiered at Sundance. About six months later, my writer partner Edmund Lee had finished the script. I really knew that to go from The Motel to West 32nd, I needed a producer who could be able to do bigger films. I knew him through Saving Face -- Alice Wu is a good friend of mine. I gave him the script and together we went to CJ and then it was perfect team-up.
APA: Did he have any advice in terms of crossing over? I know that Saving Face did fairly well in Asia.
MK: I think that Saving Face had the luxury of having Joan Chen, and also Sony Pictures Classics. So we'll see. Like I said before, this is a big experiment from CJ and they're seeing how well this could work out. I'm hoping that by word of mouth, we could build a base that could then cross over into a more mainstream audience.
APA: I'm curious about your thoughts of other Koreantown films, like Undoing or Yellow. And do you know if they were ever released in Korea?
MK: Actually I'm not sure. I don't think that they've ever had theatrical releases in Korea. Maybe on DVD, but I'm not sure. As for Koreatowns, I know there's a difference between L.A. Koreatown and New York Koreatown, and that was for me very important. When I went to NYU and landed in New York, that was my first exposure, and there's something so unique about New York Koreatown. L.A. Koreatown is so sprawling and big that I know people who grew up there and don't speak any English. They could just exist and be fine. But in New York Koreantown, it's so butted-up against everything else that you have to interact with other cultures. We tried to show that in the film too. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing. There's a lot of animosity between the Korean community and the Chinese community because they're kind of fighting for the same block and space in Flushing. Also, metaphorically, it's the furthest you can get away from Korea and still be in America.
APA: Can you talk about the style you used to shoot Koreatown?
MK: In terms of writing, we were drawing a lot from the 70s crime dramas like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. As a director, I took a lot of cues from recent Korean cinema: Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, Friend. I was trying to get a visual style that could match that. Also, for this particular story, it needed to look like a big film, so it was really important that the visual style could capture the slickness of Korean cinema. And that could be an introduction for people who aren't so familiar with Korean film.
APA: There's a big budget look to the film, but the actual budget was not.
MK: It was miniscule. We were very fortunate. I love shooting in New York, and one of my producers, Jamin O'Brien, really knows how to spend the money right. There are producers like Teddy Zee who know where to get the money from, and then you need the other side -- like Karin Chien on The Motel and Jamin O'Brien on West 32nd -- who know how to spend the money and get the most bang for you buck. I think also that my work style is to try to build a bond so that we become a tight army which really believes in the project. On weekends, everyone down to the gaffers and the grips were partying at the karaoke until four in the morning. And then we shoot all week and all believe in the story. That's how you get really beautiful work.
APA: The crew was all local?
MK: All local, yeah. That was my biggest challenge: trying to make it look like a big-budget film even though we were working with very little.
APA: In Asian American cinema, there's a reluctance to being labeled “Asian” as opposed to Asian American. But your film raises the possibility that you might want it to be read in terms of an Oldboy or Bittersweet Life. Do you have that same kind of anxiety with West 32nd?
MK: I'm hoping that it's creating a new genre: an international film. Like the same with Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger and now Lust, Caution. He's an international filmmaker. I don't just want to be an American independent filmmaker. I'd like to go down in history as somebody who has been able to forge new ground in that way. It's a global economy now and a multicultural world. We have to accept that and I think the way is to create these kinds of films.
Date Posted: 4/18/2008