Bottom Line: Engrossing and economical crime drama energized by a fresh perspective.Pusan International Film Festival
BUSAN, South Korea -- For all intents and purposes, "West 32nd" is the kind of urban crime drama that has played out on screens for years. Few have never seen a gangland thriller, and Korea has coasted on an industry of these kinds of films for many years. What separates Michael Kang's second feature from the rest, however, is the location: New York's shady Koreatown. By transplanting the room salons and hierarchies to Queens, Kang has created a film that's both fresh and familiar.
"West 32nd" has enough to make it appealing to both general and niche festivals, but the familiarity of the narrative could make it a moderate success on the art house circuit overseas, the same market that supported "Infernal Affairs" and many of Kitano Takeshi's films.
John (John Cho) is an ambitious junior defense lawyer fresh out the public defender's office. He pursues the case of a 14-year-old who allegedly killed a prominent gangster, Jin-Ho (Korean actor Jeong Jun-Ho). While sniffing around for details, he meets up-and-coming foot soldier Mike (the extremely charismatic Jun Kim), who's just as ambitious as John is.
Between them is the killer's sister, Lila (Grace Park, "Battlestar Galactica"), who went to school with Mike. Needless to say, John and Mike's worlds clash, setting them up for some fresh doses of reality that ends in a detente of sorts.
What makes "West 32nd" stand out is its peek into the Korean diaspora's criminal subculture, one that is overshadowed by Triads and Yakuza. While that's novel in itself -- at least for overseas audiences -- Kang and writer Edmund Lee do an effective job of creating characters that are equally out of place in their chosen worlds.
John is a pitch-perfect illustration of a Korean-American who can't find a way into the affluent Manhattan life he so craves. He doesn't speak the language but resorts to using his "Asian advantage" to get there. Mike is too American for his colleagues and bosses -- he's perceived as a disrespectful cowboy -- and eventually turns to violence to prove his Korean-ness and move up the ranks. Lila is the good daughter that puts family first, though she's not above working outside the system to protect it.
Kang, whose last film was the comedic coming-of-age comedy "The Motel," coaxes believable and, for some, recognizable performances from his leads, and each does a superb job of crystallizing the experience of simultaneously being labeled foreign and domestic.
The film also offers a look at intra-Asian dynamics that are easily overlooked by English-speaking audiences and filmmakers in favor of more easily identifiable sources of urban friction (Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" springs to mind).
Cinematographer Simon Cuoll's neon-pierced nighttime landscapes efficiently realize the dark corners Mike and his crew live in and that John becomes enamored with. It's not a new story, but the players are, and that gives the film its edge.
A CJ Entertainment America production
Director: Michael Kang
Writer: Edmund Lee, Michael Kang
Producer: Teddy Zee
Executive producer: Jamin O'Brien, Ted Kim, Kim Joo-Sung
Director of photography: Simon Cuoll
Production designer: Carol Strober
Music: Nathan Larson
Co-producers: Sabine Schenk, Choi Joon-Hwan
Costume designer: Kitty Boots
Editor: David Leonard
John Kim: John Cho
Mike Juhn: Jun Kim
Lila Lee: Grace Park
Suki: Jane Kim
Danny: Dante Ham
Saeng: Lanny Joon
Jin-Ho: Jeong Jun-Ho
Kyuc: Hans Kim
Running time -- 96 minutes