Spa Night (2016)
dir. Andrew Ahn
written by: Andrew Ahn
starring: Joe Seo, Haerry Kim, Youn Ho Cho
3.5 out of 4 stars
West Virginia is far from a diverse, progressive state. My predominantly white, Christian hometown did not provide much insight into the views of other cultures, particularly those of Asian descent; I actually did not have a conversation with an Asian individual until late in high school. It has taken years to better understand the differences and similarities between the cultures, and where most of their values and weaknesses, an understanding of how individuals see the world is the only way to rid oneself of misconceptions and prejudices. In college, I was finally able to meet some wonderful–and terrible–individuals of all races, religions, sexual and gender diversity, and socioeconomic upbringing. So much I thought I knew changed.
Part of this understanding grew from the classes I attended. Always a fan of literature and film, a “Sexual Diversity in Lit & Film” course was my first choice in registration the semester it arose. Furthering my understanding of historic gay and lesbian points-of-view, introducing me to trans culture more in depth than ever before, and extending my understanding of cultural norms and prejudices for different groups of people, I can attribute my sexual viewpoints more to this course than most other experiences in college. One of the most fascinating portions was the discussion of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Never before had I considered the sexual role forced upon Asian men as passive, submissive creatures portrayed as physically inferior subjects to the more “dominant” other races. Sometimes the truth has to be spelled out for you.
This is why Spa Night from writer-director Andrew Ahn was my most anticipated screening at SIFF 2016, following its well-received debut at Sundance earlier this year. In his feature debut, Ahn presents a story of David, a first generation Korean-American young man who inadvertently discovers his sexual awakening when he finds employment in a Korean spa that doubles as a popular cruising spot for gay men. While attempting to please his down-on-their-luck parents, David attempts to explore his budding sexuality with great reserve. At a crossroads in his own life, decisions must be made to determine the direction he will take in his life.
Ahn showcases the under-documented Asian American experience with passion behind his project. David is not the typical over achieving, perfect SAT score son, and actor Joe Seo provides sad eyed lament in a very lost period of his early adult life. With his parents’ restaurant closed and financial pressure causing tension, David knows he cannot stay in his current situation and assuredly needs to vacate before finding himself stuck in societal role counterintuitive to his desires. David is stoic and shy in public, but when Joe Seo is released to process David’s feelings, a lost young man is found. It is never a discussed option for David to seek out a boyfriend, and as Seo experiences this new world at such opposition to all he’s known, the weight of responsibility takes its toll. As David’s repression grows, as does the lived in nature of Seo’s performance.
David’s mother Soyoung, played by Haerry Kim, and his father Jin, played Youn Ho Cho, give dynamite performances, if the father is mildly underwritten. Ahn explores the tense portrayal of Soyoung, a woman picking up again to assure the best life for her family, but Jin’s downward spiral lacks depth beyond a disappointed sadness. Barely observed in private, we see repeated bad behavior that adds dimension to Haerry Kim’s role, but Jin felt shallow in comparison. Haerry KIm delivered a hell of a showing. Never relenting in her willingness to pick herself up, Kim dangles of exhaustion, accentuating the exasperation caused by David’s secrets.
There was never a moment when I found either parent wanting anything other than David’s happiness. Spa Night is not a coming out story; it is a story regarding a sexual revelation. Sure, David had checked guys out before, and rarely too discretely, but he had never been introduced to actual physical intimacy between men, regardless of how anonymous. David comes to understand that his parent’s dream of him marrying a Korean woman and creating Korean babies is no longer a viable option without ignoring his desires. An entire new sets of rules, and likely a familial paradigm switch, are in his future, and David feels lost.
Not only has Ahn explored a unique perspective for a closeted Asian man, but also he introduced a peek into the Korean American experience in Los Angeles. As a fan of LGBT cinema, it’s rare to find a work as exploratory and relatable, while also respectable and original. There’s no falling in love, the revelations are minimalistic and largely suppressed. Spa Night is subdued and intimate, even when separated from what you know.