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Director Explores Korean-American Identity

2007/11/20 Source

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By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

By bringing to Korea "West 32nd" ― a gritty, street-style crime film that delves deep into the underworld of New York Koreatown ― director Michael Kang explores the Korean-American identity, including his own. It is a continuation of the directorial concerns from his feature debut piece "The Motel"

"I needed this much time to get the film made, I needed `West 32nd' to be my second film. I think it was a personal journey, and it was a personal challenge, too, to make the film", Kang told The Korea Times in a recent interview in Seoul.

Growing up in the suburbs of New England, the award-winning director had never been exposed to such a large Korean community until he moved to New York for college.

"It was very jarring to me, my relationship with that community. I would walk around in Flushing (Queens, New York) and look like anybody else but I felt like I didn't belong there. That's what I very much wanted to explore (in `West 32nd')", said the New York University graduate.

Kang became well-known in the international circle with "The Motel", a coming-of-age story about a young Asian American boy living in a cheap suburban motel. The piece won much critical acclaim and awards including the 2003 Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker's Award.

His second film takes place in the heart of New York's Koreatown (K-town), which lies on West 32nd Street. Ambitious attorney John Kim takes on a pro bono case to defend a Korean teenager implicated in a gang-style homicide. Over the course of the investigation, he meets Mike Juhn, a local thug, and becomes entangled in a world of mobsters and mayhem. Kang said that the mainstream-style film is inherently similar to "The Motel", a smart indie flick.

"They're just different styles. The base of both films is rooted in characters you don't usually get to see. I feel like the gyopo (Korean-American) community really has not been shown on film before", he said. "To me the message of the movie is that Koreans in America are very lost, very disconnected and they don't know where their place is", he said.

But why is the film based in New York instead of L.A., which has a larger and more deeply rooted Korean community? "Partially because I'm from New York so it made more sense to shoot the film there. But it's also because it's the farthest you can get from Korea, so people are almost in this little island. Whereas in L.A., there are people who can live there without knowing any English. In New York, you can't do that ― the Latinos are here, the Jews are right there and the Chinese are right behind you.

"In L.A. K-town, people are more comfortable. People are usually completely bilingual, they can exist in both worlds ― they're very attached to their Korean culture and like to hang out in K-town but will also have a regular job where they're part of mainstream American culture and have no problem fitting in there.

"Whereas in New York, you have to make the decision, like those two characters, John and Mike", he said. John is the classic American success story; a lawyer climbing the mainstream American corporate ladder, while Mike tries his best to ascend the hierarchy of the Korean crime gang. They are polar opposites are but are in fact kindred spirits.

"Mike has just as little clue about Korea just as much as John, even though he seems more in touch with his Korean side. Partially by exposing that and exposing the American culture in the movie, Koreans also get a look at what America is. Though I may be wrong, they might have a romanticized view of the Korean-American community", he said, explaining how he wanted to show the other side to the success stories of Michelle Wie and Daniel Dae Kim.

In the film, the convicted boy's older sister is well-off. "I have a lot of friends whose brothers are in jail while they are working at a big Forbes company, so it's an interesting phenomenon", said the director.

Although the movie is fictional, it is deeply rooted in reality. Edmund J. Lee, who co-wrote the story with Kang, discovered an intricate Korean crime network in New York while working as a reporter for the Village Voice.

"The architecture of New York very much helps the inaccessibility of this (underground world). Beneath all those noraebang (karaoke) and restaurants, there are room salons (bars) there and different things that you need access to in order to enter", said Kang.

The director explained that Lee had followed a "yangachi" (thug) around for a year to really understand the K-town crime scene. In fact, the supporting actors that played the young teenage boys were actually kids from the area. They were part of the creative process to portray the true culture of K-town and create realistic "Konglish" (mix of Korean and English) and slang-ridden dialogue.

"West 32nd" also brings together the best of Korean talent in the U.S. and Korea, with popular actors John Cho ("Harold and Kumar") and Grace Park ("Battlestar Galactica"), and Korea's top star Jung Joon-ho and hot newcomer Jun Kim (Kim Joon-sung).

"I was a big fan of John's from way backů As we were writing the script he became the shorthand for (my co-writer) and me, we'd just talk about it as if it were John Cho but we never thought we'd be able to cast him", said Kang, who spoke of his likewise great luck in casting Grace Park. As for Jeong, he said it was an "unbelievable fantasy, because I know that he's like an icon here, and that's exactly what we needed".

Kang said Jeong's star power is key for the film because "he's the last connection to a real Korean. Within three minutes of the film he's dead, and the rest of the movie is about how his death affects these Koreans in America who are lost and have no connection anymore to Korea. So symbolically it works".

Kang's bridge-making efforts continue. Upcoming projects include the production of a film here about Korean-American guys making their way through the dating scene in Seoul, which he describes as " `The Swingers' (a male version of "Sex and the City') meets Kim Ki-duk", and a TV show for HBO about Chinese-Americans, the first Asian American family drama in a long time.

His next big directorial project is a human-trafficking story that takes place in Africa. Although Kang's personal journey as a Korean-American may have halted for the time being, his filmmaking endeavor goes on.

One can expect more of Kang as he wrestles the crippling challenge for all artists ― that is, taking one's cultural assets to create something new and named.

"West 32nd" awaits release here Nov. 22, exclusively at CGV multiplex theaters. For tickets, visit Open the link. To learn more about the movie, visit Open the link.

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