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"West 32nd" Breaks Down NY Koreatown

2007/11/15 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

It gets down-and-dirty like the gritty streets of New York. In "West 32nd", Korean-American director Michael Kang gives the classic detective genre a fresh twist as he tells the untold story of a Korea that exists in the heart of the Big Apple.

West 32nd Street is the geographic location of New York Koreatown (K-town) near the Empire State Building. But even those who are familiar with the "noraebang" (karaoke), stationary stores and "seoleongtang" (Korean beef broth) restaurants lining the strip will be shocked to know that there lies a whole new world beneath it all -- where Korean gangsters and "organized" mayhem reign.

While snippets of Koreatown have began to appear (fleetingly) as an exotic backdrop in Hollywood films like "Collateral" (2004) and "Shoot 'Em Up" (2007), it remained a relatively unexplored territory, and "West 32nd" breaks it down, once and for all.

In the dark corner of K-town, a bar owner Jin-ho (Jung Joon-ho) is shot to death. Ambitious young lawyer John Kim (John Cho) offers to defend the 14-year-old Korean boy convicted of the homicide pro bono. Over the course of the investigation, he meets Mike Juhn (Kim Joon-sung), a ruthless thug ascending the hierarchy of the Korean underworld.

Though polar opposites, the two quickly become friends. Mike is contemptible as much as he is charismatic -- an anti-hero with the tempting appeal of Kurtz in "The Heart of Darkness". He attracts John like a lamp would a moth in his anarchical world that lies outside the reach of state laws.

To complicate things, John starts to fall for his client's beautiful older sister Lila (Grace Park). But winning the case -- a fast ticket to promotion -- is always his top priority, while Mike takes "the guy from the other side" under his wing to manifest his own grand visions.

"West 32nd" is a classic crime movie but it's also a story about Koreanness and Americanness, and the murky middle ground in between -- a critical branch of the Korean diaspora that constitutes the thin but integral thread of the American social fabric.

In recent years, independent films like "Better Luck Tomorrow" (starring John Cho) and Kim So-yong's "In Between Days" began to accurately portray the Asian American community, but "West 32nd" really punches the genre through with a strictly mainstream appeal.

In the American context, the film shines through for breaking the model minority myth -- the false stereotype about Asian kids being all math whizzes who go to Ivy League schools and thus in no need of Affirmative Action. For mainland Koreans, it looks at the dark side of the American Dream, that moving to the U.S. does not guarantee wealth and success.

Just as "West 32nd" serves as the missing link between the two Korean communities, it brings together top talent from each side, popular actor John Cho ("Harold and Kumar") and "Battlestar Galactica" heroine Grace Park from the United States and top star Jung Joon-ho and hot newcomer Jun Kim (also known as Kim Joon-sung) from Seoul.

The film also does justice in presenting the Asian community, like the dialogues that are realistically crafted with "Konglish" or a clever mix of Korean and English. Characters like Mike and Jin-ho (Jeong) ooze with sex appeal, bashing stereotypes that deprived Asian men of their sexuality. It depicts more disturbing truths, touching upon racial conflicts within the Asian American community and hints upon human trafficking issues.

"West 32nd" is not a feel-good movie. Deeply embedded in the bitter and ironic reality of life, the film's ambiguous nature will leave some feeling slightly confounded.

But it doesn't drown with heavy drama. Far from being preachy, it has a rhythmic street-style beat sprinkled with good humor -- provided by a pair of "Dumb and Dumber" characters -- and an eye-catching array of "poktanju" or Korean-style boilermakers. So get ready to descend into an intoxicating underworld you may find hard to turn back from.

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