Michael Kang's second feature West 32nd is an ambitious thriller set in the Korean underworld of Manhattan. While rich in atmosphere and a set-up which promises to peel the layers off a sinister world of crime, it ultimately promises more intrigue and complexity than it delivers.
The film is too short at 83 minutes to build a mythical portrait of an organized crime syndicate the way that Johnnie To did recently in his Election movies or Scorsese did in his Infernal Affairs remake The Departed.
That's a shame because Kang and his writer Edmund Lee reveal a fascinating world of shady dealings based around a 'salon room' club in the Korean neigbourhood of New York City (West 32nd Street).
Produced in English by Korea's CJ Entertainment, the film should perform well in Korea and might sell to other Asian territories; its prospects in English-language markets could be boosted by the high production values and the casting in the lead role of John Cho, the handsome actor famous for roles in American Pie and Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle.
Cho plays a young lawyer called John Kim on the fast track at his firm who takes on a pro bono case to exonerate a 14 year-old Korean American boy from a first-degree murder charge. The boy has been accused of murdering the manager of a popular 'salon room' club on West 32nd Street who was shot on his way home one night in his own car.
John meets the boy's sister, the beautiful Lila (Park) and is immediately attracted to her. She says that she and her mother have been abandoned by the system and she welcomes the chance to clear her brother's name.
Meanwhile, John's enquiries lead him to a local hood called Mike Juhn (Jun Kim) who has ambitions to rise within the Korean crime syndicate based around the club.
Mike sees a kindred spirit in John and befriends him, bringing him to the club where he meets the beautiful Suki (Jane Kim), an escort who was in love with the slain manager and who is the object of Mike's affections.
She confesses to John that she witnessed the murder from an upstairs window and that two people were involved in the killing, one of whom was Mike Juhn. But Mike is tipped off that Suki has spilt the beans and sets off an a rampage to seize control of the club and silence Suki forever.
Kang only takes the briefest glimpses at the old men who call the shots in this world of crime, appointing and firing lieutenants casually as they play games in a cafe. Instead the focus is on Mike Juhn's character whose trigger-happiness and propensity to extreme violence render him a sort of Sonny Corleone figure when the quiet intelligence of Don Vito and Michael was always more interesting.
The film is at its best in the sleazy, dark salon rooms of the club where booze is served to excess and girls provided to the clientele. The raw ambitions and rivalries between various factions in the syndicate bring danger and eventual mayhem to the winding corridors of this male pleasure palace.
Joo Sung Kim
Jun Ho Jeong