It was never meant to be a statement on how Asian American men are portrayed in pop culture, or about how seldom they’re seen on the screen.
They were just friends who created a Web series, then a feature film about their experiences as Korean Americans coming of age in the boozy, disco ball-lit backdrop of Koreatown nightlife.
As luck would have it, though, “Ktown Cowboys” opens in four cities this week at a moment when Hollywood’s lack of diversity has ignited a firestorm of criticism, a viral hashtag and profound soul-searching within the industry.
One of a handful of movies to focus on Asian American characters in the last two decades, the film drew long lines at its South by Southwest festival premiere last year.
But in the years leading up to that moment, the friends learned not only what it takes for any first-time filmmaker to get a movie made — relentlessness, gumption and dumb luck, as it turns out — but also just how much skepticism the industry has about whether an Asian American film can have mass appeal.
“We weren’t trying to have some Asian American studies thesis about being Asian,” director Daniel “DPD” Park said. “We just wanted to tell the story of our friends.”
Buzz for the Web series, a rowdy guide to Koreatown’s nightlife, spread quickly from friend to friend after the filmmakers pushed it onto YouTube in 2010.
Among the stunned viewers, as the eight-episode series racked up more than 2 million views were Park and his friend, comedian Danny Cho, who wrote the script and played a version of himself.
In online comments and on the street, people told the filmmakers they’d connected to the story.
We weren’t trying to have some Asian American studies thesis about being Asian. We just wanted to tell the story of our friends.
“Lost” actor Daniel Dae Kim watched it and tweeted: “Well done my brothas (and sistas).”
Ken Jeong, who co-starred in the “Hangover” movies and the television series “Community,” told them he was a fan. “I just remember thinking how authentic it felt,” Jeong said. “The performances felt real.”
Shane Yoon, an actor who had a small part in the Web series, suggested they turn it into a movie.
A film buff, Yoon practically grew up at his local Blockbuster in Diamond Bar, where the only movies with Asians at front and center were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee flicks.
He’d recently quit a job wholesaling women’s shoes to retailers such as Forever 21 to try acting full time and was getting fed up with the one-liner roles he was auditioning for.
This film, he thought, would tell real stories about how he and his friends live in Los Angeles.
Park was skeptical.
“We are never going to make a dime off a movie about K-town, are you kidding me?” was his first reaction, Park said.
But the friends became convinced it was worth a shot, even if it’s a long one. Cho wrote a script, and they started trying to get financing. Studios and investors expressed interest but made no commitments.
Brian Chung, who joined as a producer, said many investors wanted a different film than what its creators had envisioned.
One suggested they add an African American character, along the lines of the “Rush Hour” cop movies starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Another floated the idea of bringing on an entirely new cast of “name” Asian actors.
“We kept getting similar notes — ‘It’s really funny; it’s like the Asian Hangover,’” Chung recalled.
That wasn’t what they’d intended to write. The friends wanted a movie that was true to the Koreatown they knew.
Their goal, Chung said, was to show “the types of people that you’re going to see here, and the types of struggles that we go through ... instead of a slapstick, caper-heist, far-fetched comedy.”
Cho and Chung, who is also credited as a writer, rewrote the script from page one.
The final version follows the lives of five friends — a standup comic, an adoptee, a second-generation liquor store owner, a meathead and a businessman— as they grow out of their partying days.
Cho relied heavily on true stories from his friends and their families. These became, Chung said, the funniest moments in the script.
After an initial investor disagreed with their vision and pulled out, Cho met another investor, Sam Chi, through a South Korean comedian who happened to be in town.
Chi had invested in Korean films but never in an American one. He eventually agreed to finance “Cowboys.”
“I don’t invest in projects, I invest in people,” he told the crew.
With a budget of a little less than $1 million, the filmmakers shot over 19 days in and around Koreatown, in many of the haunts they frequented as young men.
Jeong and Kim made cameos. Jeong became an executive producer, giving them notes on the script and helping them navigate the process.
Last March, Chung, the producer, and Chi, the investor, traveled to Austin for SXSW. As they were looking for the screening venue, they stumbled into a line stretching around the block.
“Sam [Chi] taps me on the shoulder and goes, ‘What’s that line for? It can’t be for our movie, they’re all white people,’” Chung recalled.
That screening, one of four scheduled at SXSW, was so popular the festival opened a second theater.
Film distributors took note, and the filmmakers met with more than a dozen distribution companies. Again, they encountered skepticism about the film’s commercial prospects.
Cho, the screenwriter, said Hollywood insiders seemed unsure how to calculate their film’s potential, without having much to compare it to. The last Asian American film to have registered on Hollywood’s radar was “Better Luck Tomorrow,” released in 2002.
“From then till now, over 13 years, a handful of Asian American movies were made, but most of them didn’t see [the] light of day,” he said.
They eventually found a relatively new distributor that was going to give them a lot of leeway to plug the film in a way they felt would best reach their audience.
It will open Friday in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Fairfax, Va., with a video-on-demand release next week.
Now they’re trying to drum up buzz in those cities by reaching out to college and community groups, YouTube stars, party promoters and Asian American studies professors.
Whether the film is a hit or a flop, Park said that he and his friends will continue fighting for their piece of the Hollywood pie.
“If we do feel like we’re not being represented, that falls on us to go out and make something,” he said. “The opportunity to change things is there. It’s up to us individually.”
Chung said he was ready for the world to judge the film on its merits, with characters who just happen to be Asian Americans. He said he doesn’t want the audience to see race first, but rather the travails and successes, love and friendship that make the story as much a part of the American experience as any other.
“I want them to see good characters transcendent of race,” Chung said. “Fun, good characters they care about.”