16 Oct Q&A WITH MICHAEL KANG, DIRECTOR OF WEST 32ND
Former SDAFF winner, director Michael Kang, returns to San Diego for closing night with his crossover thriller film, WEST 32nd, exposing the dark side of New York’s Korea Town.
LEE ANN KIM: Congrats on the incredible success of your second feature! It’s such a departure from THE MOTEL (awarded Best Dramatic Narrative Feature, SDAFF ‘05). What made you decide to focus your next feature on New York’s Koreatown?
MICHAEL KANG: Having grown up in New England in a mostly non-Asian setting, moving to New York was a huge change for me. At the heart of that, I was always fascinated by my relationship to the Korean enclave of Flushing and the strip of Korean businesses on 32nd Street. The story of West 32nd was a way for me to explore the connections between 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean Americans.
KIM: So how much truth is there in your film? Is K-Town’s underworld as thrilling and scandalous as you make it out to be?
KANG: There are lines blurred, but the heart of the film is based in facts. My co-writer Edmund Lee was a reporter at The Village Voice when I first met him, and he had been working for a year already on an expose on Korean criminal culture. The case involved in the film is also very common and actually had been inspired by a real murder of a room salon manager a friend who worked in the non-profit sector had told me about. Obviously, there is artistic license taken in the delivery of these events, but it is the essence of truth.
KIM: This is the first time New York’s K-town was captured on film. What was that like for the locals there?
KANG: It was really exciting to them. This was the first time that West 32nd was going to be used as a location. We had mobs of people showing up to sneak peaks on set when Jeong Jun Ho (the Korean star who makes a cameo in the film). When that was coupled with the boy-fans of Grace Park and the stoner-fans of John Cho, we really had a wide swath of people on the street.
KIM: This partnership with CJ Entertainment (Korea’s largest entertainment company) was such a coup on several level – funding, resources, cross-over talent. It’s also the first time that CJ fully funded an American film. Must be a lot of pressure, no?
KANG: Making movies is always filled with pressure, my biggest pressure is to myself and to make a film that I would want to see. I feel grateful to CJ for taking that leap. They have become the biggest studio in Korea because of their ability to stay ahead of the curve. I think they saw that this was a film that could have potential on both sides of the world. I feel like the pressure really lies in the audiences to show support for the film.
KIM: I love the integration of both Korean language and English in your film. How’s your Korean by the way?
KANG: 한국말 잘못 해요 (My Korean is terrible). I have been actively trying to learn for years, but there is definitely a disconnect because of my lack of immersion. My goal is to one day move to Korea for an extended period of time.
KIM: How cool was it to work with such a talented cast (which included both huge Korean and Korean American stars)? Who was your favorite? Any diva stories?
KANG: I have been blessed with the talent I have gotten to work with. I had never worked with John Cho or Grace Park prior to this film and there was a fear that with either or both of them that I would run into bad Hollywood behavior. But I think that as with all Asian American actors out there that have been fortunate enough to get consistent work, they are very grounded in the fact that the types of roles I write are not the typical roles they get to play – namely, characters that are very close to their own experiences. I hope that I can continue to work with people that are interested in the work first and then the perks second (or last).
KIM: Congrats on your sold-out screenings at Tribecca Film Fest, where West 32nd premiered. Did you get to meet Robert DeNiro? And what was that like to premiere in your home town where the film was shot?
KANG: I did not get to meet the big guy. But that rarely interests me anyway. It was mostly gratifying to be able to show the film to the city to which it was a love letter. The support we got there was amazing. We had to turn away hundreds of people at every screening. That was unheard of.
KIM: Have your parents seen the film yet? What’s their reaction?
KANG: My mom saw it. Crime drama isn’t really her genre of choice, but she liked it. Unfortunately, my father passed away before production began so he never got to see it. The funniest family reaction I got was from one of my cousins who saw it and remarked that he was really surprised that I had made a “real” movie (as opposed to the art house aesthetic of THE MOTEL).
KIM: Is the reaction different from Korean, Korean Americans and non-Koreans to the film?
KANG: We will be premiering the film internationally at the Pusan International Film Festival in October. That will be the first time the film will play before a predominately Korean audience. I’ll be able to answer the question better then. But I think the thing that most people connect with is the characters regardless of the cultural issues at hand.
KIM: Any interesting experiences or lessons that you gained from WEST 32nd?
KANG: Too many to recount. I was glad to be able to shoot the film after moving from NY to LA last year. It made me come back to New York with a renewed love for that city. Things looked new again to me and it was that which I was trying to capture.
KIM: Finally, we’re so thrilled that SDAFF is hosting the West Coast premiere as our closing night film. Are you ready to throw down in San Diego?
KANG: 폭탕주! 폭탕주! 폭탕주! 폭탕주! (Poktanju, a brand of soju)
Meet Michael Kang, the cast, and crew at our closing night screening of WEST 32nd on Thursday, Oct 18 at 7:00 PM.
Get your tickets early because this screening is expected to sell-out. Ticket price includes after-party.
Lee Ann is the founder and former Executive Director of Pacific Arts Movement and the San Diego Asian Film Festival.