Michael Kang’s “West 32nd” – 2007 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Director Michael Kang’s gripping sophomore effort, “West 32nd,” refers to the Koreatown housed on that very same street in Manhattan. Kang, however, refreshingly does not present an apologetic, educational commentary on Asian America that addresses stereotypes. Instead, he delivers an unflinching narrative that draws from Korean gangster films – Ji-woon Kim’s “A Bittersweet Life” comes to mind – that is rife with tension from start to finish.

John Cho (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) plays John Kim, a Korean American lawyer who comes to the aid of Lila Lee (played by Grace Park) and her mother. After Lila’s younger brother Danny is accused of murder, John offers her family free legal services, partly because he wants to do the right thing and partly because he can leverage the potential outcome of the case towards a job promotion. When the firm abruptly decides to pull the plug on the case, John finds himself having to negotiate his way through two languages foreign to him: Korean and the way of the underworld nestled in the cracks of Koreatown. To do so, he has to rely on interpreters: Lila, the conniving Mike Juhn (Jun Sung Kim) and the mysterious hostess Suki (Jane Kim).

All four leads deliver strong performances as their characters ably maneuver through startling twists to seek what they want. Cho plays a straight-laced but ambitious man who straddles the line between being an outsider and an insider. Jun Sung Kim as Mike delivers one of the best performances of the movie, having to lead a gang of minions and contend with John while pursuing an agenda of his own. Park delivers a seemingly sweet vulnerability with an edge as Lila – even her light-hearted scenes with Cho feel heavy, as if something ominous is going to happen – and Jane Kim provides three-dimensionality to Suki, who must rely more on expression than dialogue in a claustrophobic environment.

With the exception of a slightly abrupt, choppy conclusion, “West 32nd” features a solid script and makes the viewer care, first and foremost, about the characters’ fates as opposed to being entertained by violence or gimmicks. If this is the next generation of Asian American cinema, the future is very bright indeed.

“West 32nd” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Apr. 28 and screens several more times in the following week. For ticket information, go to tribecafilm.com.