Michael Kang’s second feature “West 32nd” — following his oddball coming-of-ager “Motel” — is a slick Asian-style thriller set in Manhattan’s Korea Town. Bilingual production with a mix of Korean and American actors reps the first American outing of Korea’s CJ Entertainment and an addition to producer Teddy Zee’s ongoing American-Asian cross-pollination. But, despite deft action set pieces and a highly atmospheric use of color, pic ultimately lacks true tension and fails to flesh out script’s somewhat sketchy, “Infernal Affairs”-type mirror-image setup. “West” may fare better in the East, given the novelty of its well-utilized Gotham K-Town locations.
When the manager (Jun Ho Jeong) of a 32nd Street “room salon” (the Korean equivalent of a geisha house) is murdered, ambitious young lawyer John Kim (John Cho) takes on the pro bono case of the alleged assassin, a 14-year-old Korean boy, at the behest of his boss. However, Kim’s meetings with the accused’s very attractive sister Lila (Grace Park), in the Flushing, Queens neighborhood of Kim’s early childhood, sparks a more personal interest in the case.
Kim’s investigation leads him to Mike Juhn (Jun Kim), the leader of a gang of street kids (teen versions of the clueless, semi-comic goons in many Asian gangster pics). A rather lowly figure in the loose Korean mob hierarchy, Juhn proves as ambitious as Kim. He briefly ascends to the murdered manager’s spot at the salon room, but is kicked out because of his “American” brashness.
Soon the lawyer and the gangster are hanging out together. Kim, who only speaks a few words of Korean, is tempted by the color and quasi-lawlessness of K-town, while Juhn is intrigued by the power and class of Kim’s world.
Kang and co-scriptwriter/journalist Edmund Lee’s sparse exposition strengthens their depiction of the Korean underworld with its opportunist coups mapped out almost wordlessly in the back rooms and narrow hallways of the upscale room salons.
But the same bare-bone economy short-changes the scarcely established central leads. The thesps are given little back-story or plot detail with which to build a character. Though Kim’s Mike succeeds somewhat in exuding the charismatic will of a small-scale Korean Scarface, he has no one to play off against.
Cho’s deadpan comic timing (spot on in “American Pie” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) here registers as wooden, as he single-handedly brings the word “inscrutable” back to descriptions of Asian identity.
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