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A Fresh Look at Korean-American Issues

2007/11/09 Source

You may start to watch "West 32nd", a new film by Korean-American director Michael Kang, without much expectation, sitting comfortably in your chair. But at a certain point you will find yourself on the edge, realizing that this is not the sort of independent art movie where the ethnic Korean director tries to identify his roots as an eternal outsider.

Whether you call them "diaspora films" or simply Korean-American movies, these films usually appeal only to a minority of fans. These ethnic Koreans belong to the mainstream neither in Korea nor America. To break down that barrier, Michael Kang has decided to make a thriller.

Three gunshots ring out from a Korean bar on New York's West 32nd Street. A 14-year-old Korean-American boy is arrested on the spot for killing the manager of the bar, played by Jung Joon-ho. The boy's sister Lila (Grace Park) tries to prove her brother's innocence, and second-generation Korean American lawyer John Kim (John Cho) takes the case as a way to get acceptance in the mainstream. While investigating the underworld of the Korean community, he meets "1.5 generation" Korean-American gangster Mike Juhn (Kim Joon-sung), who has replaced the dead manager. The meeting of the two ambitious men brings unexpected twists.

While enjoying the story, viewers almost incidentally get to thinking about the issue of finding an identity as outsiders. One reason the story is so plausible is the background of the cast - though of course the biggest reason is that they portray the characters so well. The actors and actresses that appeared in the movie as well as the director himself are all real Korean Americans, except Jung Joon-ho who appears as a guest. John Cho, who studied English literature at the University of California at Berkeley, appeared in "American Pie 2" and "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and is now a promising actor in Hollywood. Grace Park, who grew up in Canada, appeared in "Battlestar Galactica". Kim Joon-sung, who became known to Korean audience in "Close to You" and "Lovers Behind" ("Love Exposure"), was born and raised in Hong Kong. When actors and actresses whose first language is English, not Korean, agonize over their nationality and identity in the film, it doesn't look like they're acting.

Such issues are touched on when the second-generation Korean American lawyer is baffled by Korean-style hospitality when a first-generation Korean-American tries to cook for him as a token of gratitude for working for his son even though she can hardly communicate with him. The conflict between the 1.5-generation gangster who wants rule the Korean underworld and the second-generation elite lawyer who is desperate to get accepted in the mainstream is also well portrayed. Kang depicts the divide within the Korean community between those who are uncomfortable with being American and those who want to be more American.

"West 32nd" is a cultural intersection. The Korean town there is like a busy street in Seoul, but the place is neither Korean nor American. The film has duly been invited to both New York's Tribeca Film Festival and Pusan International Film Festival. It remains to be seen whether Kang's new work can gain support from both countries.

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