Spa Night

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.

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