SXSW Film Review – Ktown Cowboys
Based off the popular online series, Ktown Cowboys (2015) follows five friends as they navigate their lives in the Korea Town district of Los Angeles. I’m not familiar with the series, but director Daniel ‘DPD’ Park (who shares story credits with Jeff Hoffman and Danny Cho, the latter of which wrote the screenplay with Brian Chung) provides enough background for the uninitiated to catch up. After years of partying and nightlife adventures, our five protagonists come face to face with adulthood, which means taking on responsibilities. This transition proves to be difficult for our protagonists.
The premise calls to mind the same set up used on the television series Entourage. A group of male friends, roaming multiple bars and clubs, cavorting with women and getting into all kinds of hairy situations – the elements are similar. The muscular meathead Peter (Peter Jae) is basically a riff on the character of Drama, played by Kevin Dillon. The difference here is that the point of view is coming from Koreans, who clearly see and experience American culture in a unique way. I’m not Korean myself, but some of the insights felt authentic to me.
Narrated by lead character Jason (Shane Yoon), we get introduced to the guys: Sunny (Sunn Wee) works at a local liquor store and takes care of his father, who shows early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Danny (Danny Cho) gave up a plush job to pursue his dream of stand up comedy, which hasn’t panned out so far. Peter is a man of simple goals: working out, hitting on girls, and becoming a fashion designer. Robby (Bobby Choy) was adopted by white parents, raised in America, and has a white girlfriend, but wants to connect closer to his Korean heritage. Jason inherited his father’s multi-million dollar company, but scandal has left him in near financial ruin. Each character goes through their own personal crisis, and helps each other out in the best way they can…by taking shots.
The best sequences are when Jason and the other characters break the fourth wall and address the audience. Usually this is done to provide some detail regarding Korean culture. Park adds nice visual and editing touches as a character describes a phrase, or lets us in on secrets that some may not know about. We learn about terms like “Oppa” (an expression of respect a girl gives to an older guy), or the secret late night places that serve food and alcohol way after all the other bars have closed down. After 2am, alcohol is only served in paper cups. It’s these little touches that add a nice texture to a familiar story. Boiled down, this is your basic coming of age plot, but the cultural points add an identity that makes it stand apart. I had no idea that “booking” clubs exist (which to my understanding is similar to speed dating) or what a “Dohmi” is (I’ll let you look that one up).
Things start to falter as we progress to the more dramatic elements. We’re led to believe that this will mostly be a comedy. Instead, the tone shifts into some very heavy areas, where Jason and the other guys have to deal with multiple family and personal issues. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but it doesn’t fit when paired with the slapstick factors at play. In one scene, we’re supposed to laugh as the guys get into awkward predicaments, sometimes involving obscene sexual acts. But then we’re expected to turn around and take them seriously as they try to win the approval of their loved ones or find some direction in their lives. Park tries to amplify our sympathies by added a ton of over lighting, often shooting the camera directly into the sun or creating multiple lense flares. It’s a contrast that doesn’t work. The sentimentality gets pushed toward melodrama, and not in a good way. Like the characters, the film tries to balance the silly with a level of pathos, but doesn’t quite get there.
It also doesn’t help that nearly all the female characters are poorly written. Like some of the criticisms thrown toward Entourage, the script here calls for the female characters to either be the object of a man’s affection, or yearning to win their approval. Outside of the guys, no other supporting characters are drawn with any kind of depth or nuance. This is possibly due to the fact that everything is seen through Jason and the other guys’ eyes, but if that’s the case, some of them still have a lot of growing up to do.
I’m on the fence about Ktown Cowboys. On one hand, I appreciate seeing a unique voice pop up to represent one facet of this ever-evolving society. On the other: the tonal issues, forced drama, and lack of developed female characters proved to be problematic. I want to see more films that tell these stories distributed to a larger degree. At the very least, this could function as a steppingstone to bigger and better things.