If you've ever ended up on that particular stretch of east midtown searching for some spicy tofu or kim chee, you know that Korea Town on West 32nd between Broadway and Fifth Avenue is a fascinating yet often overlooked pocket of the city. However, once Michael Kang's cool thriller West 32nd hits major movie theaters, it'll sure to be mobbed with tourists. Playing at this year's Tribeca Film Festival (with a screening today at 3:30 pm and one tomorrow night at 8:30 pm), West 32nd stars John Cho as a young Korean-American attorney trying to make partner by bringing a big K-town gang murder case to his firm. This movie is director Michael Kang's second feature, after the Sundance favorite The Motel came out in '05, and while West 32nd feels like it could be a Hollywood drama ala Fast and the Furious, it's much more morally ambiguous than your usual studio fare. Gothamist recently chatted with the NYU alum about his experiences shooting in K-town and why one the best things to do in this town is go to the movies.
Korea Town is such an intriguing and culturally rich part of town, it’s so cool to see it depicted in the movies. Had you spent a lot of time hanging out there before making West 32nd?
Growing up in Providence, RI, when I first came to New York and found K-town, it became an oasis for me. I have spent many hours singing bad Air Supply songs in the private karaoke parlors on West 32nd. It was a much bigger find to discover Flushing. Taking the 7 train out to the very last stop and finding a whole enclave of Koreans that were not only running businesses but also living there was both inviting and alien to me. Over the years I have spent a lot of time there, but I still feel like an outsider in that environment.
How did “the locals” feel about your crew being around with their lights and camera equipment?
This was the first film to shut down West 32nd and use it as a backdrop. I think it was very exciting for them to see something like this happening. It was a bit of a mad house at one point when we had Jun Ho Jeong (who is a big star in Korea and has a cameo in this film) show up. That was probably the biggest problem with crowd control we had. I think there were a lot of non-Koreans who came by and saw what was going on and had no idea why everyone was flocking this one Korean guy and then it exploded even more once those people realized John Cho (Harold & Kumar) and Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) were there. We really energized three under represented parts of society – Koreans, stoners and sci-fi geeks.
The use of Korean, and who in the movie can speak Korean or not, is really interesting. Was that something that you and co-screenwriter Edmund Lee talked about while writing the script?
Both Edmund and I brought a lot of our own experiences to those aspects. We both have horrible Korean skills, so it became a natural plot device. It also perfectly exemplified the character of John’s own disconnection from his own culture.
Where's your favorite place to see a movie in the city?
I have to say that I miss the $2 theater in midtown. Nowadays, I love all the typical art house haunts like the Sunshine, IFC and Angelika. But I will always have a deep love for the truly independent theaters like Film Forum and the Quad that show stuff you can’t find in the Indieplexes. As far as ambience though, I really love going to Cinema Village East’s main auditorium – it has such a classic movie house feel.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Howard Stern. I love how he has defined his career on his own terms. And he is hilarious.
What do you hate most about the city?
I can’t think of anything that I truly hate. That is such a strong word. And I love New York. The one thing I would say that I hate is people in New York who aren’t from New York. For example, the other night as I was leaving a Tribeca party, John Cho and I were trying to hail a cab. A European couple came up and shoved me out of the door literally even though I was the one that hailed the cab. We got into a shouting match and as they drove off they gave the international symbol for chinkie eyes. If I see them at another Tribeca party, I am going to punch that guy in the face. Would that be considered a hate crime if I knocked a European out for giving chinkie eyes?
If you had one day left to live, and you were in NYC, what would you do?
I’d probably go see a movie.