Deliberately, refreshingly defiant...get under the skin of Andrew Ahn's award winning film Spa Night, a powerful new account of queer Asian experience in an America that can only imagine sameness.
Near the end of Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), the protagonist’s mother (Haerry Kim) stares blankly at the property that she and her husband (Youn Ho Cho) first shared after immigrating to the United States from Korea. “We were so excited to be here,” she says, not taking her eyes from the apartments. Their family business has gone under and her husband has turned to drinking, but they are insistent on sending their son David (Joe Seo) to an expensive SAT prep program to save face and ensure that he gets into a good college. David, meanwhile, has taken a job at a local spa, a situation that compounds his growing anxiety over his future and unacknowledged attraction to men.
Spa Night is a remarkably delicate film, dwelling on the mundane moments and uncomfortable silences often eschewed by Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a cinema of surfaces, not least in its preoccupation with the skin deep, which is not to say it’s shallow. Rather, its attentiveness to appearances is what enables it effectively to evoke, rather than sermonize on, the pain and confusion of growing up poor and queer.
Watching a Korean TV series, David’s father comments that the male leads “look like women.” His wife chimes in that she likes the young men’s long hair, even suggesting that David should grow his hair out. Afterwards, her gaze lingers on her son for a moment from behind. It’s a brief exchange, but it highlights the tension between traditional expectations of what men should be and the changing gender norms in Korean culture exemplified by K-pop’s flirtation with femininity and androgyny.
Still, it is clear from David’s parents’ marital pleas (marry a Korean girl so we can communicate with her) and the casual homophobia that he encounters that there are limits to tolerance. Ambiguity may be a refuge for some stars, but everyone else is expected to pass as straight or face stigma and exclusion from members of a sexually conservative, tight-knit community.
Ahn foregrounds Korean restaurants, cram schools, churches, and karaoke bars, de-centering those spaces that tend to dominate the big screen. Moreover, his decision to have most of the dialogue in a non-English language, while natural given the film’s setting in LA’s Koreatown, can’t help but feel deliberately, refreshingly defiant in 2017, at a time when national belonging—both in and beyond the US—is increasingly defined in terms of linguistic and cultural conformity. More than just serving as sites of collective belonging, however, these settings also open networks that double as indispensable economic lifelines for their members. David’s mother secures a new job working in the restaurant of an old friend from her church (Linda Han), who then casually invites David to tour the University of Southern California with her son, Eddie (Tae Song).
The ensuing night out with Eddie’s friends alienates the already introverted David further after he is caught eyeing Eddie at a spa. The experience reaffirms for him the mismatch between his desires and the demands of college life, and prompts him to further explore his previously unacted-upon feelings. It also underscores how community ties and gossip can put pressure on sexual nonconformists like David: be discreet, or risk your family’s social and economic position even further. Put another way, this is not a “coming-out” story. Indeed, there are good reasons why it cannot be one. As sociologists like C. Winter Han have noted, for at least some Asian Americans, more roundabout, less confrontational approaches to balancing personal desires and community expectations may yield better results.
Skin plays a role in all this, from the exposed flesh of the spa to more private acts. David works out obsessively, seemingly intent on tearing himself apart, out running himself, or at least molding himself into an image that he can live with. We watch as he uses his phone to capture his progress, runs his fingers across his stomach. The camera lingers on a snapshot. We do not so much as see David as watch him observing himself, trying desperately to become someone or something else.
Skin is our medium of contact with the world, but it is also something typically concealed in public life. Spa Night does not hesitate to challenge this concealment and its meaning by foregrounding the spa as a space that catalyzes David’s self-awakening. This is not cheap tantalization. Ki Jin Kim’s wonderfully ambient cinematography draws the viewer into a warm, hazy world of bodies shuffling about one another. Above all, it highlights the various and sometimes conflicting cultural and sexual meanings that these spaces carry for their inhabitants.
As Ahn explains in one interview, “Korean spas felt sort of sacred, in a way. We went every New Year’s to cleanse, like you had to have a clean body to start the year. It felt like church. The film is a way for me to forge a queer Korean-American identity, to find these situations where the two cultures aren't separate, but they co-exist. It’s this question of being whole.”
These tensions are present from the film’s first frames, which open with David scrubbing his father’s back at the spa, an act of filial piety that carries none of the sexual connotations typically associated with nudity and physical closeness in (Anglo-) American culture. But it might also suggest Freudian undertones. Later, his father’s presence during David’s first real sexual encounter suggests a slippage between paternal prohibition and the son’s longing for other men.
In any case, the spa’s status as a purely homosocial space is compromised by the presence of gay cruisers, much to David’s fascination and other patrons’ chagrin. Slowly, David moves closer to these scenes, allowing one older white man to masturbate in front of him, although not to touch him. It is only when David finds another Korean man who expresses interest that he goes further, perhaps recognizing for first time that it’s possible to unite being gay and being Korean in the same body.
The spa, then, serves both as a site of family bonding as well as a wellspring of novel intimacies. It brings together the dilemmas confronting him without holding out any promise to neatly resolve them. David’s problems are often profound (obligation to family versus oneself, wondering how to go on without some solid basis for hope) but also physical and unglamorous (the stickiness of not being able to afford an air conditioner, the sting of scrubbing guilty skin raw, and the intimacy and suffocation of living in such close quarters with parents and their expectations).
While films like Spa Night need no justification beyond their immersive honesty and tactile resonance, they remain timely in their challenges to mythic invocations of an America predicated on sameness and their rejection of a dream long since discredited for many. Ahn narrates another America, one with its own internal tensions and contradictions, reminding of the countless ways individuals inhabit their skins, communities, and worlds, and insisting on the urgency of recognizing that these lives and experiences matter too.
Words: Brandon Kemp
Translation: Will Dai
Originally written in English. All images are from the internet.
Brandon Kemp is a writer working on issues surrounding culture, embodiment, queerness, and cinematic experience. You can read more of his work at https://brandonkemp.wordpress.com
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