I admit, one of the main reasons why I decided to see West 32nd was to catch a glimpse of John Cho (better known as Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) in a more serious role. That, combined with the fact that it was being labeled a thriller set in the seedy underground world of New York's Koreatown was enough to grab my interest. As a life-long New Yorker, there aren't many places within the city that I'm not familiar with. I've lived on the Upper West Side and on the Lower East Side; gone to weddings in Chinatown; worked in Tribeca and Midtown; partied in the West and East Village; and grabbed a bite in practically every neighborhood there is ... except K-town. For anyone that's ever taken a cab across town and away from either Madison Square Garden or Penn Station, you've probably passed through West 32nd street, noticed the Korean BBQ shops, but never actually stopped to look around. With his second feature, not only does director Michael Kang (The Motel) deliver one of the more beautifully shot films I caught at Tribeca, but he introduces us to the complexity of an entire world that's carefully and delicately situated within one city block.
John (Cho) is a young Korean-American attorney who's assigned to do pro bono work on a capital murder case. Smart and well-dressed, he's the type of guy who craves power and respect; the kind that comes along with making partner at the firm. Meanwhile, cocktails with the rest of the suits at a swanky midtown bar are just an added luxury. Things change when John's research on said case (in which a teenager is accused of gunning down the manager of a Korean "salon room" club) drops him knee-deep in the middle of gang-related politics; so much so that he begins to question which one of his two lives is more exciting: the wealthy, straight-laced attorney or the corrupt, turbo-charged gangster in training.
It's not surprising that one would spot the similarities between Michael Mann's Collateral and the way Kang chose to shoot West 32nd. Both films illuminate a city's darkness, and bright lights give way to an evil that's only present when you go looking for it. Kang doesn't waste time either; the fantastic opening sequence is reminiscent of a P.T. Anderson-style long shot -- without cutting away, the audience follows several characters in and out of "salon rooms" where businessmen wine and dine beautiful Korean women under a soft, sensual glow. This isn't a sex club, mind you, it's an upscale classy joint that caters to men who'd rather pay to have an attractive girl rub their neck and pour their drink than spend money on a night out with the wife.
And it doesn't take long for our young, impressionable attorney to fall in love with this world; the exotic danger that lurks behind each pristine knook and cranny is impossible to ignore. Funnily enough, John finds guidance in Mike (Jun Sung Kim); a too-confident-for-his-own-good crook who might be the one responsible for the murder. Well, that's if John listens to his teenage client's older sister Lila (Grace Park); then again, she may have her own motives. Soon enough, John finds himself immersed in a world full of people who came from the same origins, but operate on completely different levels. Since John was raised without much of a Korean influence, he barely understands the language; either that, or he doesn't want to. However, he's surrounded by the kind of tradition he's always ignored, forcing him to seek help from those who shouldn't be trusted. During one of the film's many enthralling scenes, John uses Lila as a translator for an interview with the one "salon room" girl who witnessed the crime. Here we have three people, all Korean, all from the same city, who find it impossible to communicate with one another -- a situation where the truth could literally wind up lost in translation.
That said, Cho's performance was a bit stale -- as conflict reaches its boiling point, the guy barely blinks; it's almost as if the dialogue calls for more emotion, but the actor barely has enough time to phone it in. It's hard to tell whether this stems from bad direction, bad acting or a fairly weak script. While the central premise revolves around this murder, we never really meet the kid who John is supposedly defending. Therefore, it's impossible for us to feel sympathy for him or his grieving family -- the action is there, the rising tension present throughout, but in the back of your head you keep hoping the next scene will tell you a little more about this so-called murderer. Tack on a few plot holes, and West 32nd leaves you satisfied but not asking for seconds. Yet, it's an ambitious sophomore effort for an up-and-coming director who, unlike Cho, proved here that he's destined to dazzle us for years to come.