Ever since moving to New York City in 1989, I have been interested in the Korean American community and my relationship to it. I grew up in the suburbs of New England and my exposure to the Korean community was mainly through the church and through the scattered amount of Korean friends of my parents. When I moved to New York, I found a rich Korean community that both attracted me and alienated me. "West 32nd" came from wanting to explore this relationship.
The initial inspiration for the story came from an actual case I had heard about through a friend who worked for a non-profit organization that helped Asian American youth. The case involved a murder that occurred in New York in which a young boy was forced into a confession for a crime he did not commit. Around the same time, I had met my writing partner Edmund Lee who was a reporter at the Village Voice. He had been working on an expose of Korean American gang culture. After discussing the topics, the match seemed perfect.
I have always loved crime dramas. The challenge for me was tackling this form while maintaining what I find key in all good stories e.g. a deeper exploration of characters. First and foremost the film is a crime story, but the heart of the drama comes from maneuvering through this genre from a unique and personal perspective.
From my own sense of alienation from the community, the character of John Kim was born, a 2nd generation Korean American lawyer who is desperate to get acceptance in the mainstream white culture. John's drive to succeed sends him into the darker underworld of Korean American gang culture. Completely alien to this world and at the same time inherently linked to it, John must confront his own sense of identity.
To counter-balance John, Mike Juhn, a mid-level gangster who is equally driven to find his own place in the criminal world, was created. Despite being steeped in Korean culture, Mike is still without a sense of his own place in society.
These two characters become dependant on one another as their relationship deepens. At times, they try to work together but ultimately they come to a tragic impasse. This becomes a metaphor for the deeper issue of resolving the relationship between the 2nd Generation and 1.5 Generation Korean Americans and ultimately their relationship to Korean culture as a whole.
Stylistically, the film pays homage to classic 1970's films like "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." With the changing landscape of New York over the past two decades, I felt that the gritty urban experience that made those films so rich only truly still exists in the outer boroughs and specifically Flushing, Queens. In addition, the emergence of new Korean cinema with films like "Oldboy" and "A Bittersweet Life" has inspired an aesthetic that aspires to be as bold. Hopefully, this film can act as the bridge between Korean and American cinema.