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More West 32nd

The film is still playing in Korea. If  you haven’t told your friends already, please do otherwise it may be gone any day now.

From The Korea Herald:

Michael Kang’s Thug Flick Searches Beneath Korean-American Identity
By Jean Oh

Director Michael Kang hits home with his latest film “West 32nd,”
tackling key issues that Korean Americans face in the United States
today.

“West 32nd,” which opened in select theaters nationwide on Nov. 22,
takes audiences through New York’s Korean American underworld.

And it is an unnerving experience.

John Kim (“Harold and Kumar” star John Cho), a highly ambitious Korean
American lawyer, finds himself rubbing shoulders with a group of 1.5
generation thugs in his quest to defend a Korean American accused of
murder. Kim, strangely drawn to the gritty world of room salons and
brawls, gets close to the leader of the group, Mike Juhn —
charismatically played by actor Kim Jun-sung. And before he realizes
what he has gotten himself into, it is too late.

Far from the usual action gangster flick, this film is not for the weak
at heart. It takes a dark look at the challenges Korean Americans face
in assimilating into the United States. And the stark bluntness of
“West 32nd” sends audiences on a jarring journey through the lives of
two young Korean Americans struggling to make it to the top.

Kang, 37, who garnered three awards for his last film “The Motel
(2005),” co-wrote the script for “West 32nd” with former Village Voice
reporter Edmund Lee.

Michael Kang, director of “West 32nd”

“The
film is based on research my co-writer Edmund Lee did as a journalist,”
said Kang in an interview with The Korea Herald. “He followed a
yangachi (thug) around for about a year for an expose on the Korean
underworld that he wrote.” And Lee’s honest look at this world, coupled
with Kang’s personal experiences living in New York as a Korean
American, gives the script a frankness that is as refreshing as it is
disturbing.

John Kim portrays a chillingly accurate representation of a Korean
American who has assimilated himself to the point where he no longer
possesses a Korean identity. And thug Mike Juhn fits the stereotype of
the 1.5 generation Korean American who can’t function outside of
Koreatown.

Kang chose to focus on these two extreme versions of Korean Americans
in order to demonstrate that despite their differences, they both
suffered from the same struggle with their identities.

“I wanted to show that these two people, though seemingly from
different worlds, were actually not so different,” said Kang. “I really
wanted to explore the connection between the two white-washed kyopo
(Korean Americans) and the more Koreanized 1.5 generation. To me the
film is about both of them equally. In the same way that John Kim is
lost and disconnected from his cultural roots, Mike Juhn is equally as
lost somewhere between Korea and America.”

And indeed, although Juhn speaks Korean fluently and knows how to
respect his elders, he does not seem to have a clue as to what being
Korean really is.

“I think the subtle thing that some people have picked up on is that
Mike Juhn is just as disconnected from real Korea as John is,” said
Kang. “He may speak Korean and have a romanticized version of what it
is to be Korean, but he is as lost as John Kim is.”

And at the end of the film, when both Juhn and Kim have gotten what
they wanted, Kang manages to evoke a powerful sense of empty success.
As if to say, the means does not justify the end.

“I think that these are the two extremes that Korean Americans face as
choices,” said Kang. “I think within the Korean American community,
Mike Juhn is limited to the amount of success he can get. On the other
hand, John Kim seemingly has no limits but he has to lose a part of
himself in order to get it.”

But despite the terrible character flaws that both Kim and Juhn possess, it is surprisingly easy to relate to them.

“I think there is a part of me like the characters in ‘West 32nd’ that
feels like there is something missing in my experiences,” said Kang.
Perhaps it is his closeness to his characters that imparts that crucial
scent of humanity to his film. And it is this element of humanity that
pushes “West 32nd” beyond the realm of prototypical Asian film noir.

But no thug flick is complete without some good old blood and violence.
And “West 32nd” offers more than its fair share of shoot-outs and
fights. Far from being glossy and sophisticated, every shot and punch
is messy, raw and shocking. But the final and lasting impact comes from
the film location: New York.

“I chose New York for a few different reasons,” said Kang.
“First, I love New York … I also feel like there is a very different
kind of Korean American culture in New York than in Los Angeles.
Because of the amount of Koreans in Los Angeles, it is much easier to
live and thrive in L.A.’s Koreatown without ever having to learn
English or deal with the world outside of Koreatown. In New York, the
geography is different and cultures are butted up against one another.
There is a lot more tension to living in the ethnic enclaves of New
York because of the way it is laid out.”

And that tension comes across in every shot. Entirely filmed in New
York, the streets, the buildings and the boroughs really set the stage
for the movie, adding to the sense of displacement. Just when the
audience feels tricked into believing that the entire world is one big
Koreatown, two thug-like black men walk by, cowing the Korean American
characters, putting things back into perspective.

The marriage of location, sound, script and good acting make
“West 32nd” an entertaining movie. And Kang is getting recognized for
his ability to address sensitive issues through film.

“I recently sold an idea for a television show to HBO about New York’s
Chinatown, which came about after an HBO executive saw ‘West 32nd’ at
the Tribeca Film Festival,” said Kang, who is also slated to produce a
film about Korean Americans and Korean girls in Seoul called “Love
Buzz.”

“West 32nd” will be playing in select CGV theaters nationwide through Dec. 5