Friday, November 27, 2009

Koreatown on DVD: West 32nd

West 32nd
Directed by Michael Kang
Pathfinder Entertainment

I have been to Manhattan’s fashionable Koreatown many times to hear jazz gigs, but I have never been harassed there by Korean gangsters. It must be my easy-going demeanor. Of course, I was not frequenting the exclusive room salons that appear to be entirely mobbed up in Michael Kang’s West 32nd (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Manhattan’s Koreatown is almost entirely a commercial district, directly adjacent to Herald Square. It is where Jin Ho Chun used to manage the syndicate’s elite salon rooms, before he was gunned down one fateful night, while his lover Suki Kim watched from the window above. She saw it all, but as a “geisha” like salon hostess, she is virtually an indentured servant and knows only a scant bit of English.

Attorney John Kim will want to talk to Suki. He has taken on the case of a teenager accused of Jin Ho’s murder. His plan was to sign up a winnable pro bono case to build his tony law firm’s standing in the Asian community, eventually parlaying a courtroom victory into a junior partnership. As counselor Kim investigates the case, he falls in with Mike Juhn, an ambitious Korean mob enforcer who briefly succeeded Jin Ho as manager of the salon rooms, only to be sabotaged by his own impulsiveness.

Though ostensibly working his case, Kim spends an awful lot of time hanging with Juhn’s crew in salon rooms, playing Korean drinking games, and wining & dining Lila Lee, the beautiful sister of his client. Nice work if you can get it. Of course, it is also more photogenic than filing briefs.

Recognizable from the new Star Trek reboot and TV’s Flashforward, John Cho has a much more terrestrial role in West 32nd as the striving attorney. While he is not terrible in the part, his character is not that swift on the uptake. Though the film’s lead, the bland Cho is largely upstaged by some strong supporting performances, including Jun Kim, who brings the proper mean streets intensity as Juhn. Grace Park is also quite engaging as the concerned sister. The film’s real standout though is the luminous Jane Kim, who conveys a nuanced vulnerability as the distressed Suki.

There are a lot of stupid gangster tricks in West 32nd, but it does present an intriguing picture of a supposedly pragmatic Korean crime syndicate. Despite the subservience of the room salon hostesses, West 32nd is not a sexually explicit film (that kind of thing does not go in salons). Yet, it still holds a certain voyeuristic fascination with the illicit gangster lifestyle. At least on DVD (which also includes Heather Park’s music video for “Leave Me to Dream,” a song from the film), it is an entertaining look at underground K-town, with some quite notable supporting turns.