South Korea’s rising film industry has flowed beyond its borders toward Koreans overseas. A production of CJ Entertainment, Korea’s largest entertainment company, West 32nd represents the aspect of Korean cinema that includes the talent of overseas Koreans like director Michael Kang. After exploring adolescence in rural backwater America in his first feature, The Motel (Reel Asian Opening Night, 2005), Kang segues to a tale of survival from the streets of New York City in West 32nd. What results is an ambitious and stylish mix of Korean new wave and New York grit.
When a Korean teenager is accused of a gang-style murder, ambitious young lawyer John Kim (John Cho from the Harold And Kumar franchise) takes on the controversial case pro bono to raise his profile in his firm. John finds added incentive in his client’s sweet and attractive sister Lila (Grace Park of Battlestar Galactica and CBC’s Edgemont). As he delves into the case John finds an underground Korean community worlds away from his own second-generation, all-American Ivy-League upbringing. Blindly navigating the community, John meets Mike (the magnetic Jun Kim), a rising mid-level gangster who guides him through the neon underworld of hostesses, room salons, and gangs of Koreatown so that John may better serve his client; or, so it seems. When Lila gets caught in the middle of John and Mike’s respective ambitions, the results are volatile.
Kang takes a firm hold of the New York crime drama genre and plants it firmly on the streets of Koreatown in West 32nd. It shows the sordid side of the immigrant experience; equally violent and exploitative towards its own members in the name of fast money and survival. Furthermore, like their Italian American mob movie analogues, John, Mike, and Lila steer through their own ambivalence towards the community and find that they can never truly escape it. Kang has crafted a stylishly entertaining crime drama but also a statement about the pushes and pulls of one’s own community.
–Aram Siu Wai Collier