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Mike Kang takes his latest film, West 32nd, to the streets, and illuminates a culture that spans two continents.
Korean American director Michael Kang's West 32nd is a thrilling road map to the meandering underworld of one of the Big Apple's most vibrant immigrant enclaves. The cross-pollination of Asian and American talent in this thrilling tale of Korean mobsters provides a promising look at the future of Asian American cinema.
The film's title describes Manhattan's Koreatown, whose dwellers live on the fringes of both Seoul and New York. The movie focuses on one aspect of the community: the sprawling underworld of "room salons" filled with beautiful call girls and mobsters who are transported across two continents.
Mesmerized by the changing cityscape of New York, Providence-born Kang set out to chronicle the gritty urbanity of both K-town and Queen's Flushing. In West 32nd, these two Korean American enclaves are miles apart, but are connected by blood.
Kang says West 32nd pays homage to his favorite 1970s crime dramas, such as Sidney Lumet's Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, as well as the works of Martin Scorcese, John Woo, and Park Chan-wook.
As in many of Lumet's films, West 32nd's story was inspired from the headlines. Only this story proved too explosive for legitimate journalism. Co-writer Edmund Lee, a former Village Voice reporter, said he followed a mobster for a year to investigate the dealings of Seoul gangs and Korean American cops in Flushing. However, the transnational ties were hard to prove and the sketchy evidence was best fixed with a fictional narrative.
The film centers on the serendipitous entanglement between ambitious Korean American lawyer John Kim (played by John Cho) and Korean mobsters in the Big Apple. Kim takes on a pro bono case to exonerate a Korean teen accused of murdering a room salon manager. He falls for beautiful Lila Lee (Grace Park), sister of the accused during the investigation. To unravel the case, John Kim befriends Jun Kim, a mid-level gangster who plots bloodshed to usurp the crime syndicate.
West 32nd marks the first time Gotham's K-town has been captured on screen. Kang clandestinely met with the enclave's unofficial "mayor" to seek his blessing and even cast some teen thugs to make the film more realistic.
The film references the tension amongst Flushing's Asian mobs in the 1990s to shatter the myth of Queens as a peaceful melting pot of immigrants. The Chinese cluster on Main Street, while the Koreans settle on the Northern Boulevard. In the film, racial slurs against the Chinese are scribbled on the walls of a Korean restaurant, and characters are butchered in one of the midnight chases.
In such scenes, the audience may be dazzled by Kang's lucid camerawork of street fights and neon rooms, but the film's most powerful cinematic device might actually lie in its strategic use of words. "Language is power," says the director.
Lawyer John Kim's perfect English elevates him above the immigrants, but his inability to understand Korean shields him from the crucial details of the seedy dealings. Meanwhile, the bilingual character Mike Juhn drifts seamlessly between the two worlds, although the ability to know too much ultimately becomes his liability. Lila Lee, another multilingual, obscures the investigation by withholding translation of another's testimony.
The script's wide use of language made it hard for Kang to cast actors who are fluent in both tongues. He finally resorted to tweaking lines for each character and subtitling a quarter of the film. The actors and their voice coaches decided which lines were best delivered in English or Korean, while Jun Kim revamped his lines with new Korean slang coined by the Flushing immigrant community.
"Our intention was to write an entertaining story for a cross-cultured audience," Kang says. The film is also punctuated by Korean jokes and cultural miscues, which are most apparent in John Kim's dinner etiquette before Lila Lee's family.
The linguistic diversity is part of a larger desire to naturally showcase the wide spectrum of the Korean American experience, from assimilated second generation embodied by John Kim and Lila Lee, to new immigrants such as Suki Kim.
The script was written with rising star John Cho (American Pie, Better Luck Tomorrow, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) in mind, while West 32nd marks Jun Kim's American film debut. Kim's ruthless killer exudes great charm without indulging in the bravado of the profession. Kim is a Hong Kong-born Korean American who quit his stock broker job to become an actor. He opted to work in Korea, to act "three dimensional characters" instead of being stereotyped in Hollywood.
Of Hollywood's flat characterization of Koreans, Kang concurs. The filmmaker's effort to depict the cultural nuances was partly in protest of American pop culture's broad-brush approach to portraying Asians. "We are all lumped together with the Chinese," he says. "The most we could get was a Chinatown episode on Law and Order. We want to make them know the distinct difference between Chinese and Koreans."
In addition, the film also aims to clarify the Korean American experience to viewers in Asia. Kang calls the film a bold experiment for the Korean media giant CJ Entertainment, a co-producer on the film along with Teddy Zee's company in Hollywood. "Generally, Koreans don't care much about Korean Americans. So it's very daring for [CJ Entertainment] to market this film. Maybe they saw a limit in the Korean wave." The cast too reflects a more global view of Korean-ness: John Cho, Jun Kim, and Jane Kim can be called Korean Americans, while Jun Ho Jeoung hails from Korea and Grace Park (of Battlestar Galactica fame) from Canada.
But despite this innovative strategy of linguistic and cultural hybridity, Kang maintains that the film is no activist project. "The most important thing to me is to tell stories that are real and true," he says. "You can't say I'm going to make all Asian men look sexy now. I don't think anybody who creates art really can think in such political terms." Producing a body of work that is diverse in subject matter and representation, as exemplified by those of Ang Lee and Wayne Wang, is a more powerful statement, he adds.
Kang certainly seems headed in that direction. Coming off his adorable (and award-winning) coming-of-age comedy The Motel, Kang was able to secure funding and pursue the darker, more ambitious West 32nd, which was originally written in 1998. "It's a natural progression from Motel to West 32nd; creatively they balance each other out," he says. "I want to challenge myself and tell a new story each time."
Date Posted: 6/29/2007