As a reporter for The Village Voice in the late Nineties, I uncovered a story about a pair of Korean New York City Police detectives who were beating up Korean teens in Flushing, Queens. It was a difficult story to prove, but I was able to interview a number of Korean kids who claimed they were beat up in the interrogation room by these detectives. The police said it was all part of their efforts to clean up an emerging gang element in the Korean and Chinese communities. The teens, of course, said there was no such thing.
As I dug deeper, I discovered that there was, indeed, more to these detectives, who, like me, were second generation Korean Americans. When pressed, sources confessed that there was, in fact, a sprouting Korean gang element in New York, which was loosely tied to the underworld back in Korea. Even more shockingly, it was revealed to me that the two detectives were somehow connected to that system.
After years of tracking down sources, conducting interviews, and even speaking to the detectives themselves, I discovered a deep and intricate system of Korean organized crime in the city. They were not nearly as well organized as the usual mob outfits, but that was partly by design. I also became aware that, despite what mainstream America perceived about Korean immigrants, all was not well within. Korean teens were, indeed, being targeted by said crime groups and were drawn into their ranks.
This was not a story I could prove. There were no paper trails and sources were few and far between. But it was a story that I desperately wanted to tell.
One summer, as part of an article I was researching on Asian American filmmakers, I contacted Michael Kang, who was then directing film shorts and showing them in New York. We hit it off, having similar backgrounds and impressions of moviemaking. In the course of our discussions, I mentioned the difficulty I was having trying to nail down a story on Korean organized crime. He suggested we turn it into a movie.
Though I was hesitant at first, the more I considered the notion, the more I realized that a fictional account would somehow make for a more compelling story. We did not set out to do a documentary; we wanted to fashion a real narrative, a compelling drama that followed a movie format but which would be unique in its details -- details that would ring true, and not just to Korean moviegoers, but to anybody interested in a good old-fashioned detective story.
After going through many drafts, and after Mike had already cut his first feature film, The Motel, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, we finalized a script of the story I had researched years ago, West 32nd. This movie is not based on a true story, but it is rooted in everyday reality. It is a story that delves into the conflict between a person's selfish motives and his need for human contact. It is a New York story, a needful tale about Korean American life.