In Andrew Ahn’s feature length debut Spa Night, our main character David is introduced hunched over in a dimly lit sauna, a towel draped over his head. The sound mix emphases his heavy, sighing breath, which is audible but blocked by the weight of the towel. In this 2016 Sundance competition film, towels become a provocative motif, suffocating expression and concealing desire.. At the intersection of his existence as a second generation Korean American and a fledgling queer man exploring his sexual desires, pressure hits at David from multiple angles. The admiring but unenthusiastic praise which has greeted Spa Night’s release is a recognition of Ahn’s exciting early command of framing and craft, but fails to truly meet this remarkable film on its own level, that of a profoundly emotional, and refreshingly serious point of view. Jump on in! The water’s fine...
Spa Night follows a repressed teenage Korean American named David played by Joe Seo, in a remarkably subtle performance which has won him jury prizes at both Sundance and Outfest this year. David lives with his parents Jin (Young Ho Cho) and Soyoung (Haeery Kim) in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. We first encounter the family at a Korean spa, where they partake in a casual atmosphere of talky relaxation where you can throw in a luxurious body scrub while you’re at it! Korean spas serve as a fragile space of ritual and tradition in the challenge of preserving an intermingling immigrant identity in the United States (in interviews, Ahn has cited Korean spas as an important part of his own family’s real-life cultural traditions, lending the film an autobiographical authenticity).
The family’s life beyond the spa provides the evidence of this mass contestation: Jin and Soyoung’s restaurant is being foreclosed upon, pushed out by other more successful Korean restaurants in the area. As the family’s finances worsen, David’s future feels under more and more scrutiny, causing his insecurities about all of the above to blaze wildly. A part-time job at a late-night Korean spa opens up an opportunity for David, one that quickly brings his cultural heritage and emerging queer desire into direct collision.
In Spa Night’s second half, the slow and gentle pace of the film is suddenly laden with sexual tension, almost to the point of becoming an erotic thriller. The layout of a Korean spa, formerly a spot of squeaky clean family obligation, is recast as an erotic playground, lit to the gods in static wide shots to highlight the corridors and shadowy passageways of covert queer sexual cruising. The surveillance put on David twofold, once as a non-white person in the United States, twice as a queer person, is literalized and intensified within the space of the Korean spa night, as David moves from tacit enabler to ardent participant, out of the sight of his forbidding boss.
Throughout the film Ahn shows particular attention to David’s corporeal self. David is obsessed with fitness, working constantly on his body to attain a lean muscular physique. There are several scenes of David straining to take the perfectly lit picture of his chest, and his penis, in images tailor-made for a Grindr profile. Ahn’s bodily images frequently cut men off at the neck, removing any personal identification of the face to reduce bodies down to the breathing of the chest. David’s focus on the body is almost self-mutilating, scrubbing down his body in the shower to raw irritated flesh, in an expression of disturbing self-loathing.
Spa Night is not an easy film, but is David’s life not an easy life to lead? Andrew Ahn has crafted a combustible portrait of queer self-discovery in the pressurized existence of a second generation immigrant family. And by shades both erotic and despondent, Spa Night pays tribute to the tough wounds and lessons of its subject in a beautifully world-weary film.
Release: Opens today (8/19) at the Metrograph in NYC and next Friday (8/26) at Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles