Reviews & Previews - West 32nd

Posted on Tuesday, November 03, 2009 at 06:00 PM

West 32nd

By: S. Tran

Starring: John Cho, Grace Park, Ju-seong Kim
Directed By: Michael Kang
Running Time: 86 minutes

One of the great things about films is the way they can introduce us into secret worlds we may not otherwise be able to see. When this is done very well you get an outstanding film like City of God, where the story takes on an almost documentary feel. On the opposite end of the spectrum is something like Showgirls which felt about as real as a Britney Spears 'live' performance. West 32nd falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, giving us a glimpse of a Korean-American subculture, but never bringing us all the way in.

The film stars John Cho as a lawyer named John who is looking to make a name for himself by defending a young boy charged with the murder of a manager of a 'room salon', a kind of high class, Korean run karaoke bar where business men are entertained by attractive women. The accused's sister, Lila (Park), is a studious bookworm, who, like John, is unfamiliar with the dangerous underground that exists in New York for other Korean Americans.

John soon realizes that although he is Korean he is as much of an outsider to the secretive world as any other non-Korean. In order to gain more information about the events leading up to the murder he seeks the help of Mike (Kim) a lower level thug in the criminal organization's hierarchy. For reasons not very clearly explained in the film, Mike takes a liking to John despite the fact that John poses an obvious danger to the closed world.

With Mike's help, and a little bit of luck, John gains entry into the 'room salons' and slowly begins unraveling the truth behind the murder. As he gains an understanding of what happened though he finds out quickly that he is no longer insulated from the danger and violence.

While I understand what Kang was trying to do with West 32nd, I felt like the film came up a little short. At 86 minutes the film felt like it could have used another 20 or 30 more minutes to really explore the differences between John's very American life and the life of Korean Americans living a different version of the dream. The glimpses we get and the quick explanations given by Mike feel like a Cliff's Note rendition of the shadow world. It's just sketches and broad strokes.

This problem also affects the characters. John the outsider, Lila the shy bookworm, Mike the gangster. We only begin to scratch their surfaces near the end of the movie, but by then its too late. Kang's previous film 'The Motel' did a much better job fleshing out the characters and making us invest in them. I found that I couldn't get as involved here.

Park and Cho are dependable actors and give credible performances, but they aren't enough to fill in the cracks. The veteran actors are both pros and know how to fill the screen. Kim is also good but sometimes his thug persona got a bit cartoony. This was made a little worse by the comic relief provided by members of his gang who seemed a bit out of place in the otherwise serious film.

Overall, it was a good effort by Kang, but not as good as he is capable of. While the film looks good and is technically very well done it doesn't take enough time to really draw the viewer into the lives of the characters.

The film was released in Korea in 2007 and is now available in North America on DVD.


3 stars out of 5.


NOTE: The showtimes listed on come directly from the theatres' announced schedules, which are distributed to us on a weekly basis. All showtimes are subject to change without notice or recourse to