REVIEW: Spa Night

Joe Seo (David) in Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT

Spa Night is writer/director Andrew Ahn’s feature-length debut – immersing us within the Korean-American community of Los Angeles.

The story follows David (Joe Seo) – a dutiful 18-year-old as he struggles to make his parents proud while grappling with his sexuality amidst the nocturnal world of karaoke bars and the all-male spas of Koreatown.

We spoke with writer/director Andrew Anh for a behind-the-scenes look at the film:

You’ve drawn on your personal story to create this film – did you have any concerns about creating such a personal work?

For me, if a film isn’t personal in some way, it’s not worth making. I wanted to give the audience as much insight and nuance into what it means to be both gay and Korean-American. The only way I knew how to do this was to talk about my own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. I definitely had a few concerns, but they all felt petty or selfish. I knew that if I could tell this story well, it would transcend me and have a meaningfulness for so many other people.

The dilemmas and challenges of migrant families, trying to establish themselves in a new country, seem to be fairly consistent – in many ways it’s a universal experience. What aspects of the migrant experience that you’re exploring in Spa Night is unique to the Korean community who have migrated to the US?

It’s hard to answer this question and not sound like a sociologist! From my own experience, the Korean-American community is fiercely Korean – there’s a strong desire to stay connected to our homeland through traditions and rituals. And for me, many of these traditions and rituals are rooted in the family and therefore fairly heteronormative. This is my main character’s dilemma in Spa Night – how does he maintain a relationship to his parents and his Korean-ness now that he realises he’s gay? This is a question I think about often in my own life.

As a coming-of-age story, David seems incredibly conflicted. Is this a reflection of the way that being gay is viewed within Korean culture?

Korean culture is notoriously conservative and traditional. Views on homosexuality are not always positive. That said, I think what David is struggling with isn’t homophobia within the Korean-American community. Instead, it’s this question of expectation and success. If he doesn’t do well in school and marry a Korean woman who he can have Korean babies with, is he then a disappointment to his parents? His parents sacrificed so much and rely on David’s success to justify their difficulties. This might not mean much if David were less empathetic, but he’s such a good kid. He cares about his parents immensely.

When David first begins working at the spa, he seems to actively assist gay men who are hooking-up, however as the management clamps down on sexual activity in the spa this seems to force David to internalise and repress his desires. Is that an accurate reading of those scenes?

Yes – I think in the same way David wants to take care of his parents, he wants to take care of these cruisey spa patrons. He’s a really nice guy! But I think as he starts to involve himself more and more into that scene, he understands his own desires and begins to feel this tension between what he’s doing and what his parents want for him. As he sees his mother and father struggle, his sexual exploration feels more selfish to him.

I don’t know much about the bathhouses of LA, but watching Spa Night I was surprised by how many non-Korean guys were using the spa. However when I did a quick search for bathhouses in LA, some of the directories included Korean spas. Why wouldn’t non-Koreans just go to a gay bathhouse rather than risk disapproval from non-gay spa patrons at a Korean spa?

I think there are many people who find something exciting about having sex where you’re not supposed to – there’s a thrill to that risk. There’s also a level of closeted-ness that you can maintain at a Korean spa that you can’t maintain at a gay bathhouse. If you’re spotted a gay bathhouse, people know exactly why you’re there. If you’re caught at a Korean spa, you can protect yourself by saying you are there to just relax. David would never get a job at a gay bathhouse, but it’s not an issue for him to get a job at a Korean spa.

When David finally does have an encounter with another guy at the spa, you make it very clear that he is hooking-up with a guy who is also Korean. Why was that important?

David’s gone through so much conflict – I think he feels like this other guy understands him. There’s an added layer of connection beyond just the physical that pushes him over the edge, to do something a little risky. For me, this is a good sign for David. It’s no longer just about desire, he’s forging a gay identity.

It’s a very measured pace throughout the film, slowly revealing David’s inner-turmoils without ever really giving him a chance to verbalise any of it. Who are some of your film-making inspirations or heroes who might be influencing your style of storytelling?

I’m a big fan of Yasujiro Ozu. I remember watching Tokyo Story and thinking that this was the most beautiful film ever made. Then a few weeks later I watched Late Spring and thought: No, this is the most beautiful film ever made! There’s something about how the conflict in Late Spring is caused not by anger or hate, it’s actually fuelled by love and care. There’s an element of this in Spa Night. David’s dilemma is made worse by the fact that his parents are loving people. If they hated David, he’d have no problem walking away from them.

What were some of the unexpected challenges that you encountered making a feature-length film compared to making short films?

I think the biggest challenge I encountered while making my first feature is that the editing process is really complicated. With short films, there’s only so many ways you can edit what you have – you can watch the film over and over again in one evening. It feels like you can hold it in your hand, examine it from all sides, and then continue editing. With features, it’s a very different beast. It’s a much more musical format – it has long phrases that then have to link together to create a whole. My editor Yannis Chalkiadakis and I worked really hard to find the rhythm of the film.

Spa Night is distributed by Strand Releasing.

Joe Seo (David) and Youn Ho Cho (Jin) in Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT
Joe Seo (David) in Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT
Joe Seo (David) in Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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