The spa is often more than just a bathhouse. For many, it represents a queer safe space. In Korean culture, it represents a place of familial bonding, where mothers and daughters or fathers and sons go, taking turns to scrub each other’s backs. In both contexts, the spa also contains an air of vulnerability, and a sense of rebirth, a shedding of old skin, arising anew in the fog. In director Andrew Ahn‘s impressive debut feature, Spa Night, the spa represents a perfect melting pot of all these connotations for protagonist David (Joe Seo), a young man discovering his sexuality.
Spa Night isn’t the first of its kind by any means (a queer coming-of-age story) but the cultural backdrop is unique in that David is a Korean-American, a rarely represented group in either country’s cinema. The film is in both languages, almost equally, and first-generation David is a little bit awkward in both Korean and English, as many Korean-Americans often are. Some of the images and narratives in the movie will feel awfully familiar to a Korean-American viewer: not just the spa, but the karaoke bar he later ventures to, the streets of Koreatown (particularly in Los Angeles), meeting your parents’ friends at their Korean church, helping your parents at the Korean restaurant they work at while they put you through grueling SAT classes, maybe one too many conversations about marrying a “nice Korean boy” or a “nice Korean girl.”
For David, the topic of finding a Korean wife comes up in an early scene, when he’s enjoying a Korean shaved ice dessert with his parents at the spa. There’s a quiet inner tension between David’s desire for obedience and his actual desire—certainly not a wife. He floats the idea of marrying a white girl, met with some reluctance from his traditional Korean mother, but the idea of a man? He dare never bring it up; his parents don’t even suspect it. In David’s quieter moments, he can be seen taking nude selfies in the bathroom mirror, observing his naked, male body. Ahn’s camera follows David with the same kind of hushed observation, but with a searching that goes beyond the surface of the skin. He lingers on David’s face in a contemplative way, that, paired with an intentional lack of dialogue on David’s part, leaves us constantly questioning what he might be thinking.
The next time David finds himself at the spa—which becomes the film’s seminal location, but not a dominant one, as its title might suggest—his male gaze lingers away from himself and onto the bodies of the male friends he tags along with. His queer discovery is a slow-burning one though—it’s not until he takes on a job at the spa that he has any explicitly gay encounters (this, too, happens after several instances of cruising). In terms of cinematic experience, the pace of the build-up is a bit frustrating, but real life is not always a growth spurt. There’s even a sense that not enough happens but the repression—a lot of glancing, no touching—feels right with the tone, and especially within the cultural context, of the film.
It’s also interesting to note that while he plays voyeur to many gay patrons who are not Korean, his first physical connection happens with a Korean-American like himself. “I wanted to have this queer, gay cruising feel separate from his Koreanness,” Andrew Ahn told me. “I was really careful to make sure that that Korean connection didn’t happen until the very end.” When David finally gives in to his suppressed feelings, it’s not necessarily a cause for celebration. One of the best and most intense scenes in the film is the self-flagellation that happens with a body scrubber in the spa: self-hatred, cleansing, and a desire to be reborn. “I think in the growing-up process we do hate ourselves a little bit,” Ahn said. “But it’s like a process you have to go through and there’s hopefulness in it and there’s a necessity to it, so that you can get to the other side so that you can have this fresh perspective.”
Spa Night has been marketed as a “gay Korean film” but it’s less erotic than you’d expect. It’s largely a family film. Ahn makes sure to show us the family dynamic—parents who pick up any odd job they can just to put food on the table every day, leaving David unattended, opting for spa nights over SAT study, and a marriage that’s tearing at the seams because of the father’s preference for soju night after night. David’s mother, Soyoung (Haerry Kim), is another stand-out playing the disillusioned immigrant who was promised a better life in America, only to pick up a waitressing job she hates and constantly fight about money with her husband.
Ahn, too, sees it as a film that even a conservative Korean family could appreciate. “In some ways it was my hope that this was a film that even older Korean-Americans who are uncomfortable with the subject of queerness could go in and watch and not judge the character, but understand him,” he said. “And that was a challenge, but I feel like it was an important one and hopefully a lot of young Korean-Americans bring their parents to come see this. It might be a little bit strange for them to pitch, but I think that ultimately, it will be a satisfying family movie experience.”
Spa Night opens in New York on Friday, August 19 and Los Angeles on August 26.