Film and TV

Ktown Cowboys Is a Breakthrough for Diversity — and a Disappointment, Too


Ktown Cowboys
indicates by its title both insider status and a desire to fit in. Ktown — short for Koreatown — refers to the Los Angeles neighborhood marked by art deco buildings and Korean signage, where the film is set. Though not actually known for cowboys, L.A. has for more than a century produced movies perpetuating that chiseled myth of American masculinity. While the stereotypical cowboy is white, those hailing from Ktown are both proudly Korean and quintessentially American, a tension they wrestle with throughout.

These “cowboys” grew up here. Danny is a financier-turned-comedian. Jason has inherited his wealthy father’s business. Sunny helps his dad, who suffers from encroaching Alzheimer’s, run a liquor store. Peter is a bouncer-turned-designer, and Robby was adopted by white parents who push Korean culture on both him and his white girlfriend. These dynamics inspire rich material: a drunken confrontation between Jason and Sunny over their differing financial situations; Peter’s violent posturing in a bar fight and his bizarre treatment of film star Ken Jeong, whom the friends meet in a restaurant; Robby’s anger at his parents and wondering whether to teach in South Korea; the meandering conversations that give shape to these lives and friendships; the good-humored asides about the rhythms of life in Ktown. When was the last time you saw a film by and about Korean-American men centering themselves?

Unfortunately, Ktown Cowboys and its protagonists are too busy partying to really explore that subject matter. Ktown is full of late-night clubs and karaoke bars that provide a slick, pulsing backdrop to the friends’ antics, but drunkenness on its own is boring, and the men’s humor is childish, outdated, sexist, fatphobic, racist and homophobic. Like the partying, that could be used to make or mean something, but it's not — it's just there for laughs. The friends love one another, but they don’t learn or change much; they just open that bar and start earning money from others’ drunkenness instead of sitting in their own.

The most American element of Ktown Cowboys is its sheen of glittering capitalism. Like its country of origin, there’s a lot to love in this film, but a lot that’s hateful too. 
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Diana Clarke is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.