The Boys of Ktown

Ktown Cowboys, a webseries-cum-feature film directed by Daniel “DPD” Park, pays homage to the soju-laced frontier known as Los Angeles Koreatown. Oliver Saria talks to the director and cast behind the award-winning movie—a crew not too different from the raucous party-hoppers they charmingly portray.

photographs by ERIC SUEYOSHI

It’s a warm June evening at Café Bleu in Los Angeles Koreatown, and outside, Red Devils have started lurking the streets. South Korea and Argentina will later duke it out in Jo-burg at 4 in the freaking morning, but until then, I’m sharing a round of drinks with the guys behind Ktown Cowboys—a new web series/film about partying in Ktown (think The Hangover with Asian dudes). While I order some booze for director Daniel “DPD” Park, writer and co-star Danny Cho, and co-stars Lanny Joon, Sunn Wee, Peter “Pedro” Jae and Bobby “Big Phony” Choy, I’m secretly hoping we’ll end up at a booking club, then in a fistfight, then at a noraebang with a group of Ktown hotties—just like in the movie. But tonight, the guys aren’t in the mood to tilt back shots. They have to pace themselves in order to stay awake for the soccer game. Plus, Danny’s got gout.

Not quite the start I was hoping for.

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect these guys to re-create the scenes of their movie, but damn, who wouldn’t want that kind of night? And, as a Bay Area native, I do feel a bit like the film’s primary character, John—a young Virginia transplant whose introduction to Ktown culture results in a raucous evening of (mis)adventures, busting balls, revelry, fights, food, booze and beautiful women. Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? The film did such an effective job of selling that image it garnered Park the “Best First Feature” award at this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Now, Park’s debut is chopped into individual webisodes available on YouTube, where viewers aren’t exactly shy about talking smack.

So who are these guys—really? Peter’s Bronx accent is legit, and though his meathead movie persona is an exaggeration, he did just come from his job as a bouncer at a dive bar in Echo Park. Bobby is as thoughtful and soft-spoken as his character, Robert. Danny’s acerbic wit cuts like the professional comedian that he is. Lanny’s leading-man swagger drops intermittently to laugh when Danny cracks on him. And Sunn (aka Sunny) shares his character’s low-key confidence, except now he’s decked in geek-chic hipster glasses and a red Manchester United tee. Despite their insistence that the characters are based on Ktown archetypes and not autobiographical per se, the movie undeniably hews closely to real-life. And that closeness—to the film, to the community, to their homies—is evident throughout the interview.

Danny Cho (DC), the film’s writer, plays Danny, a foul-mouthed smartass who likes to bust chops.
Bobby Choy (BC) plays Robert, the sensitive one. His friends think he’s “a pussy.”
Peter Jae (PJ) plays Peter, a belligerent, confrontational meathead who pulls his shirt off before every fight.
Lanny Joon (LJ) plays John, a Virginia transplant who loses his Ktown V-card on his first night in L.A.
Sunn Wee (SW) plays Sunny, the wise, smooth talker. The undisputed leader of the crew.
Daniel Park (DPD), the film’s director.
Oliver Saria: When I heard this was a movie about Ktown, I thought: gangsters, crime, dark underbelly. You guys went in a completely different direction.
Daniel “DPD” Park: We were more interested in just depicting Ktown like the way we see it. We wanted to capture some of the funnier moments that we’ve experienced here.
Danny Cho: You know that fight [from the film]? That happened to me a lot at that same spot.OS: So are the characters based on you guys?
DPD: People that I knew growing up in this area, they knew people like that. There’s that one guy who always gets into fights and literally takes off his shirt before he fights. I’m not kidding. And I’ve had several friends hit me up after watching episode 6 saying, “Yo, my friend was exactly like that! At the same spot!”
DC: [Peter, who plays a meathead in the film] is not really a meathead.OS: [To Peter] But there’s the presumption that you’re really like that.
Peter “Pedro” Jae: People are [saying], “Oh, this is horrible acting.” I’m like, “Motherf-cker, do you know me?!” [He then pops out of his seat, flexes his muscles and glowers at an unseen adversary. For a moment, I fear for my life.]
PJ: Naw, I’m just playing.
DPD: [Peter] has a fashion degree.
PJ: I used to design clothes. I’m nothing like that meathead guy.

OS: How about Sunn’s character?
Sunn Wee: When I read Danny’s script for the first time, I was kinda nervous because the lines were just way too cool. The character’s too cool for me.
DC: To be honest, I knew that he could do it. He’s not like [his character] Sunny in the sense that he’s too smooth, but he is smooth. You know what I mean? Just in a different way—a very Korean way.
DPD: He does well with women.
DC: He’s a pimp.

OS: You’re just like a low-key, undercover pimp?
SW: Just call me the goofy-pimp. Call me the gimp.
DC: I’m the gimp.
DPD: But Sunn gets the ladies, man. You know what, though? We also wanted to do a lot of blending. So Bobby is a singer, and his character is a singer. Danny is a comedian; his character is a comedian.
PJ: I’m really an asshole.

OS: So it’s safe to say that it’s partly biographical?
SW: It’s a big exaggeration.OS: What were the main archetypes?
DPD: The pimp, the asshole, the troublemaker, the peacekeeper.
Lanny Joon: The greenhorn. OS: Are you afraid that the film might be perceived as stereotyping?
LJ: We’re getting comments like, “This is so stereotypical.” In a sense, yes, it is. But it’s just a bunch of dudes hanging out, eating and drinking. If that’s a stereotype, then I guess it’s a stereotype.
PJ: If we were going to stereotype Koreans, we’d all be speaking with bad accents doing kung fu kicks, we’d all own—[Peter is getting heated again]. Sorry, I’m coming out like [my character]. We’d all own businesses. We’d all be dry cleaners, liquor store owners.
LJ: Yeah, we’d beat our girlfriends.
PJ: We’re not doing any of that. You know what I’m saying?
DPD: At the same time, I don’t want to be the guy that says there’s some truth behind every stereotype.
Bobby “Big Phony” Choy: But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fight outside tonight.
DPD: We’re not trying to represent Korean Americans. We’re just trying to tell our personal experiences.
DC: There aren’t that many outlets and depictions of Asian Americans, so when it happens, they want it to be the best one. But I’m like, c’mon. We wrote it, like we said, not really to be the Martin Luther Kings of our people—
PJ: Martin Luther Kims…
DC: We just want to do our thing—whether people like it or not. I also liked the fact that non-Koreans could watch it and be like, “Oh, OK, I get it.”
DPD: Some of the most vocally supportive people have been non-Asians.
ALL: Yup.
DC: A bunch of white people came up to me and were like, “We love it.”
PJ: And literally, I didn’t even get home yet, and I’m getting Facebook requests like, “Yo, man. I just met you an hour ago.”
SW: I never had white people on my Facebook until now. I’m international, baby.
[The waitress plunks down two bottles of soju.]
DPD: [laughs] Wow, keeping it real tonight.

OS: The lead actress [Mina Yoo] is gorgeous. Where did you find her?
BC: We saw her in that short, Gochu [directed by Andrew Oh].
DPD: It won the KoreAm “Drama Fo’ Yo Mama” video contest. I had an idea of what the girl should look like, just like this Ktown-looking girl. And I was like, there she is. That’s what she looks like.

OS: Does anyone really get laid at booking clubs?
DC: Of course. Some people think booking is negative, but it’s not prostitution. It’s like speed dating.
LJ: Girls want it, too.
DPD: I feel bad for girls who’ve never been and they don’t know what’s going on.
PJ: And if the girls hated it that much, they’d stop going to those clubs, but they’re there every weekend.
SW: [imitating a girl] I want to dance!
PJ: It’s not like they got the best deejays in the world.
SW: It’s like OK music. Drinks are expensive. Why even come?
DC: They like the fog machine.

OS: How did you get Hite/Jinro to sponsor you?
DC: I approached one of the owners here [at Café Bleu] and he had some connections. He’s one of the executive producers, Ginam Lee, and he got us the money from Hite.

OS: How did you pitch it? Did you say the characters would drink Hite constant
DC: As a joke, I was like, “I’m famous. People are going to watch this.” I was drunk. But, yeah, there were no contracts, no anything. They just cut us a check.
DPD: And on that note, “Cheers.” Cheers to Jinro—except for Danny. He’s got gout.
[We all down a shot.]
LJ: I hate soju!

OS: It sounds like you had a lot of community support.
DC: A lot of favors that were pulled. That’s what I love about it, you know? From camera equipment, to Justin Chon being in it. Bobby Lee’s in it.
DC: I called Bobby Lee ‘cause Bobby’s like my big brother. He got me my first agent; he got me on TV, and I said, “Bobby, can you help us out? You’re gonna play yourself.” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Cool.” And then he goes, “Danny, the things I’ve done for you [Danny places his left palm high up in the air], and the things you’ve done for me [the opposite hand drops to his lap]. And then after he shot [his scene in the film], he’s like, “Are we done?” And then, I said, “Yeah, you’re a wrap.” And then he just literally ran across the street.
DPD: He ran across. Cars were going by.
LJ: He had a burrito in his hand.

OS: Bobby, you’re primarily a musician, right? So is everyone else an actor?
LJ: The only two actors are probably just me and Pedro.
DC: I’m in SAG [Screen Actor’s Guild] too, motherf-cker.

OS: What does Sunn do?
DC: He’s a liquor store owner.
DPD: Oh, that’s such a stereotype! C’mon, man!
DC: But he is.
BC: When [Danny] asked me to be in it, I said, “No. I’m not an actor.”
DC: I was like, “You’re playing you. You’re being a pussy.” He’s like, “OK.”
BC: I was just really afraid of wasting production time because I’d never acted before.
SW: That’s what I was worried about.
SW: But I knew it was going to be a good production. The people behind it were so professional.
DPD: We had so little money; we had to be. We did a lot of one-takes.
SW: A lot! Motherf-cker, a lot!

OS: Not even a safety?
LJ: Not even for the kissing scene, man.
DPD: One take on the kissing. We had no time…that’s the one take I feel bad about. If I was in Lanny’s shoes, I’d be pissed.
“I tried to make Ktown look dope.”

OS: What has the success of the project done for you guys?
DPD: It’s gotten me a lot of girls. Just kidding.
BC: I was at a club in Vegas and a girl on the dance floor asked if I was in Ktown Cowboys.
LJ: Shut up!
SW: HTS [hit that sh-t], boy.
BC: I walked away. I didn’t get her number.
LJ: Are you playing your role?!

OS: Is the series going to continue?
DPD: Who knows? We wrote it as a self-contained series, but we’ll see how things pan out, you know?
DC: Personally for me, this was my final—not final—but it was like my “piece” on Ktown. I wanted to be like, OK, I did my own thing—and I tried to make Ktown look dope. And now we gotta move on and not become pigeonholed.

OS: Have people been asking you to do more seasons?
DPD: A lot of people, especially industry people, that’s the first thing that they ask. They’re like, “So how many seasons or episodes deep do you have this written up ‘til?” I’m like, “Actually, that was it.” But it’s definitely not a closed chapter.
DC: Do a season 2. Do a spin-off. Do Ktown Cowgirls.

OS: So right now there’s no plan to expand it.
BC: I think for all of us, it’s more of a labor of love. And for the future, I hope this sends a message to people that they can do what they want. They can create what they want. We did this with nothing, you know? We did it with sheer will.
DC: Yeah, stop being internet gangsters and make your own movie. Straight up!