For any Americans who need a crash course in Korean-American culture, look no further than Daniel Park’s Ktown Cowboys. Playing like an instructional video for those of us who are unfamiliar with Los Angeles’ Koreatown scene, we’re introduced to a group of characters who take time out of their busy partying schedule to drop factoids about Korean lifestyles. The whole thing feels like an episode of Korean Entourage in some ways, since each character pretty much mirrors Wahlberg’s “fictional” crew, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for us karaoke-loving clubheads who are interested in other drunken cultures.
This is a straight-laced story about how bro-bonding can overcome the most dire of circumstances, which is nothing new, but the location of Ktown does offer more intrigue than an equal story about generic Californians with the same problem. This is Ktown, bro! Time to kick out the K-Pop and play some Starcraft!
The film follows five friends as they set out on an epic birthday quest. There’s Sunny (Sunn Wee), a nice guy who runs his ailing father’s liquor store, Danny (Danny Cho), a struggling stand up comedian, Peter (Peter Jae), the over-aggressive ladies man who spends most of his time with “Jill,” Robby (Bobby Choy), an adopted Korean who’s whiter than his smokin’ girlfriend, and Jason (Shane Yoon), a self-described “selfish asshole” who runs his Uncle’s company. Conflicts arise over the course of the night and tempers flare, but Ktown Cowboys is about how each person overcomes internal conflict that come pouring out after a night of hard, aggressive drinking. Can Jason save his Uncle’s company after a cataclysmic investment fails? Will Danny regret quitting his cushy desk job to pursue a career in comedy? The world is their oyster – they just have to crack it open.
Produced in-part by funnyman Ken Jeong (who has a rather comical cameo), Ktown Cowboys is based on a successful web-series that the troupe turned into Daniel Park’s debut feature film. For those of you familiar with the web-series format, you’ll notice how the film does feel like a bunch of larger episodes that are jammed into one smaller, less in-depth cinematic experience. For better or worse, the series’ episodic nature does struggle a bit when translated into a broader format, making the whole experience feel a bit smaller. Each character has their own problems, but once Jason’s main conflict shanghais the entire plot, characters like Danny find their arcs buried under a larger theme of business corruption. And while each character is introduced with the same importance, some of the conflicts reach a resolution without any struggle. These arcs feel slight, rushed, and fairly inconsequential when hastily addressed in a larger movie about one man’s cataclysmic loses.
On the other hand, there’s something endearing about these atypical cowboys. Like I said, the Entourage comparisons become so obvious at points between Peter’s perfect Johnny Drama impression and Danny’s down-and-out Turtle mentality, but they’re all able bro-types who have their own means of beating down a different Los Angeles party scene. Ktown Cowboys is drenched in a stylish haze of neon lights and overseas techno, but these boys know how to party, and party hearty they do.
You’ll learn about the Ktown “booking” system (women get brought directly to your table like speed dating), witness a new drinking game called Beer Balls, and experience numerous karaoke montages blended with plenty of clinking glasses – everything you’d expect from a night out at Asian clubs. The boys are rowdy, but they’re still lovable in a very human way. These aren’t nightlife Gods who can drink bottles of Patron and still walk out of the VIP section in a straight, unobstructed line.
Park’s vision is also unique in its representation, as characters will take a moment of their time to address the camera and break down a situation for clarification. Robby might call time-out so he can explain that “FOB” means “Fresh Off The Boat,” or Peter might divulge that “Oppa” is a cutesy Korean term that young girls say to older men out of respect (or when they want something). In addressing the audience, Park draws viewers into the Ktown atmosphere, and despite cultural differences, there’s never a lack of information about the unlikely practices being displayed on screen. Park and cinematographer Chase Bowman swirl the camera around tables filled with empty shot glasses and full pint glasses, capturing the ferocious appetite for late-night shenanigans these cowboys have while also promoting a sharp cinematic vision that makes use of each vibrantly lit private room.
I give Ktown Cowboys credit for finding a different way to make us fall in love with a whole new culture of bros (and also for not titling itself Ktown Kowboys, shying away from an obvious alliteration). If Entourage is American BBQ, then Ktown Cowboys is Korean BBQ – a totally different flavor that can coexist with similar practices using completely different ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, Park’s film is much tamer than any of Vincent Chase’s TV-MA exploits, and the heartwarming connections don’t always stick, but there’s nothing wrong with what Ktown Cowboys represents. Life often has a f#cked up way of working out, but with the right group of bro-dogs by your side, you can accomplish anything. Including massive K-Pop fueled karaoke binges.
Ktown Cowboys is a recognizable story told in a new cultural light, so despite being a slight "coming of age" tale, a fresh vibe makes the journey worthwhile.