By Hans Pedersen, December 2016 Issue.
Spa Night unveils the collision between two worlds when an Asian-American teenager on the brink of manhood witnesses same-sex hookups among guys who frequent a Korean spa in Los Angeles.
Sexy, homoerotic shots fill the opening scenes of this movie, but audiences who are looking for explicit action will not find it here. While sensual moments in the spa are erotic, the movie is actually about family connections and being true to oneself amidst sexual self-discovery.
Director Andrew Ahn aims for an honest depiction of a young man grappling with his sexual orientation in this breakout indie feature. And, while the director achieves his goal with this downbeat drama, he also excels at expressing the normalcy of everyday struggles, from making bad business decisions to doing well on the SATs.
David (Joe Seo) is a Korean high school senior who is facing the dreaded college test, but his father’s inventory foul-up winds up sinking the family business. Only adding to his pressures, David must now help his family make ends meet by accepting a job at a Korean spa. The culturally specific locale is not the kind of place designed for guys to make out, but the Korean bathhouse seems to attract a gay clientele.
While David’s job is to police the activity and make sure guys don’t have any intimate body contact, he winds up feeling drawn to the steamy action instead.
As a part of a Korean lifestyle, the ritual washing at the bathhouse – making the unwashed clean – is the perfect kind of backdrop to explore themes of pleasure and shame that are associated with sexuality. The director explores such themes vividly with an eye for evoking the erotic but tense, disquieting mood inside a steam bath environment.
That’s crystallized in one scene where David is scrubbing himself as if he’s trying to shed his own skin. Yet it’s not necessarily about scouring away something that’s dirty, but rather, about shedding the old and conveying growth.
Body language becomes a fundamental means of communication in the story, with small gestures playing a pivotal role, like the effort not to ogle your pals in the shower or to sneak the casual glance at a shirtless man. In either case, the role of the body remains central to the story.
The stress his character is under to help support his parents is enormous, and David seems to be in a huge quandary about whether coming out is an option.
The director aspires for realism instead of artifice here – even if that means avoiding a conclusion that’s a triumphant affirmation. And any expectations of a typical coming out narrative are subverted.
But, as a result of staying true to the story, there’s nothing very overtly positive about our main character’s sexuality. David is never affirmed for who he is, and must find that affirmation for himself.
Sprinting in one of the film’s concluding scenes, David almost appears to be flying into the future. But viewers mat be disappointed if they are hoping for a candy-coated ending, or even a satisfyingly upbeat denouement.
A monochromatic wash gives the spa scenes a warm, enveloping feeling. And skilled audio choices play a crucial role in making this a standout film: sounds like trickling fluids and heavy breathing contribute to the bathhouse eroticism.
Performances are stunning across the board, and each enhances the realism of this slow-burning character study. In fact, Seo earned awards at both Sundance and Outfest for his performance.
The director’s devotion to realism means audiences don’t get off that easily. Ahn credits his influences, Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu and master of improvisational realism director/actor John Cassevetes – not to mention comedian Margaret Cho. She was “the only queer Korean person I knew until I was like, 20,” Ahn told Echo.
Instead of being about anonymous sex, the director has crafted a film about a young man discovering his sexuality and his network of family relationships. The result is a film that could easily resonate with both the LGBTQ crowd as well as the Korean community.
This movie expresses a universal idea that, despite the pain that may be involved, one can hopefully aspire to live an authentic life and find renewal in the process.
Spa Night is set for DVD/iTunes release Dec. 6.
Ethnicity and sexual orientation converge in award-winning coming-of-age-film
Spa Night shares the story of a Korean-American teenager on the cusp on manhood, who’s trying to finish high school and help his family out financially. But his job at a Korean spa turns out to be the place where his burgeoning sexuality can find an outlet.
The result is a movie that’s earned top honors: at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, director Andrew Ahn was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and actor Joe Seo, who plays David, won a Special Jury Prize. Ahn and Seo also earned Grand Jury Prize Awards at Outfest 2016.
At Sundance 2016, Echo spoke with Ahn and Seo, as well as actress Haerry Kim (“Law and Order”), who plays David’s mother, Soyoung.
Echo: How did the project first originate?
Ahn: The inspiration for Spa Night was – I was out for some drinks in West Hollywood and a friend told me had a hot hookup in the steam room of a Korean spa. And it kind of boggled my mind because the Korean spa is where I went with my dad as a kid. You go and scrub and it’s a very cultural place, and so to hear it was used as a space for gay men to hook up was totally like sacrilegious to me. I was thinking a lot as a gay Korean-American man these two parts of my identity are often kind of separate. And in the Korean spa I realized they were kind of clashing and that was something I wanted to explore in this movie.
Echo: What first attracted each of you to this project?
Kim: I was just intrigued that it was not just one story it had so many different aspects to it – cultural, sexual and social. It’s also a human story [about] an immigrant family. And how can you mix them together? And as I was reading … he just put them together really delicately. I loved it so much … my character had a lot of depth … it was a multidimensional character and the character was well formed. I could see there were a lot of aspects that I really wanted to play so I wanted to tag along and be part of the project. And I couldn’t believe it was written by a man, especially for my character …
Seo: The script was just amazing. As an actor in LA, you don’t really see these minority stories actually being developed. You could hear about it, you could do shorts about it, but you never see a feature that’s an Asian American story. For me, this was real … There’s nothing really over the top about it, it really spoke to me loud … I knew it would be tough, one of the toughest things I’ve had to do. Not because of the nudity, but the dramatic aspect to the parents, and the parts I’d have to re-live in order to play this part, like that drama between the mom and dad and son … I just really wanted to do this film because I felt that is an aspect of minority life that I want people to see …
Echo: Do you think there’s been progress in terms of roles for Asian Americans?
Seo: Even though there are more roles for Asian Americans, way more than in the past, I just feel like progress-wise, not really. The content itself is not too deep. There aren’t layers, or those nuances that make it real.
Kim: I think we need more writers and directors so we have enough of a pool of people to create the stories that still need to be told. So people can watch and engage and open their hearts. I really think there should be more writers, filmmakers …
Ahn: I agree with what [Seo] says. There are more roles but the quality isn’t necessarily better. You still see a lot of casting calls where it’s a waitress or …
Seo: Or a Kung Fu guy.
Ahn: Yes, or a Kung Fu guy. Oh my God so my times.
Seo: With an accent.
Ahn: And I think [Kim] is right, there need to be more content creators. There need to be people behind the scenes to help provide the roles for people in front of the camera. …
Echo: Can you talk more about how your background informed the work and helped to bring out those nuances?
Ahn: What I wanted to accomplish in my first film was to show my abilities as a director, and part of that is to show [my] ability to observe life and capture life. The life around me is, a lot of the time, my family. I just remember when I was writing the screenplay I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna have dinner a few more nights a week with my parents, and I’m gonna see how they’d interact.’ And that, for me, was also nice because I got to get closer to them.
I think what people respond to in filmmaking often is a sense of authenticity, and what culture do I know better than the one that I live in or the one I’m a part of. So it’s either lived experience or intense amounts of research … For me it’s so much fun to see my culture on-screen and I hope it resonates with other Korean Americans. And I hope it’s a fun entre into a world that non-Korean Americans can experience.
Kim: Also it’s a family story so there is a lot of struggle, adjusting to a new life and trying to make ends meet, doing their best in their environment. I think anyone can relate to that story. And then growing up and coming out in the world as who you are.
Seo: It really is, as Andrew always says, it is a western … Everyone does come from another country, except Native Americans of course. And we’re all here struggling trying to create an identity for ourselves, trying to be accepted by everyone else also. That duality [is what] this film depicts and I think it does a remarkable job.
Echo: What was it like to see the movie on the big screen?
Seo: It was really tough for me to watch. It kind of drew back to the times when I was on set, and portraying David, I had to go through those emotions, and it threw me back to the place. It’s a place you kind of want to, not forget, but to put in the past and move forward. But by watching the film you kind of have to relive it and for me it was tough. I couldn’t help but lose my …
Kim: I couldn’t help but bite my nails … my costar was getting so emotional.
Seo: I was a mess.
Ahn: During the Q & A Joe tried to answer a question and he fell into tears. And I think what’s interesting is for me, watching it with an audience, I’ve seen it so many times at this point, hundreds of times, that it’s kind of like church. It’s a spiritual experience because you’re communing with something … to absorb this with other people is really different than watching it alone and trying to fix the subtitles or color or anything like that. What I loved about it was people responded and reacted in a way that was very open … a lot of it was also Sundance audiences are so great.