'Spa Night': Sundance Review

Spa Night still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An impressive if extremely subtle first film.

Korean-American director Andrew Ahn's debut feature stars fresh-faced newcomer Joe Seo as a Koreatown, L.A., youngster struggling with his identity.

The son of an immigrant couple barely scraping by in Los Angeles’ Koreatown struggles — ever so subtly — with his cultural and sexual identity in Spa Night, rookie writer-director Andrew Ahn’s gossamer debut feature. Anchored by a physically imposing yet intentionally somewhat opaque performance from Joe Seo, himself a Koreatown kid, this discerning drama observes how a sense of family is both a gift and a something of burden for a young Korean-American who starts working at a spa to help fund his studies. However, Ahn’s delicacy of observation, which at times suggests a more embryonic Ira Sachs as seen through an immigrant prism, will be appreciated at festivals more than in any type of commercial release. That said, there’s no denying this is an absorbing calling card for Ahn.

David (Seo), who seems to be around 20, has dedicated much of his life to helping out his mother, Soyoung (Korean actress Haerry Kim), and father, Jin (Youn Ho Cho, also Korean), who run a small eatery in a quiet nook of Koreatown. But times are tough and they’re forced to close, which in turn forces everyone in the family to re-evaluate their priorities.

Soyoung insists her son retake his SATs, since he was too busy with restaurant work the first time he took them (and now, of course, there’s no more business to potentially take over so he needs a new career plan). But there’s barely enough money in the family to pay for the courses David needs, which results in his mother having to swallow her pride and take up a waitressing position with Mrs. Baek, (Linda Han), a kind acquaintance from church, and his father increasingly drinking himself into a stupor between odd jobs he has a hard time keeping down.

Though, as with many things in the film, it is only briefly hinted at or suggested, there’s a sense that David’s identity was tethered directly to his parents and the family restaurant. With that gone, both his identity and possible future are in flux and David needs to redefine who he is and what he wants out of life. To complicate matters further, his parents, who only speak Korean, are wondering when he’ll leave the house and start his own Korean family, though it becomes increasingly clear that David’s hormones seem to be telling him that men — Korean or otherwise — might be more exciting than girls.

After a drunken 24 hours spent with Mrs. Baek’s supposedly model — and also model-gorgeous — son, Eddie (Tae Song), that ends at an all-male Korean spa, David applies for a job opening there. Ahn, production designer Hyein Ki and cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, working mostly in shallow focus, visually turn the spa into a seemingly self-contained place eons removed from David’s sheltered life up until then, a sensual world of obligatory nudity, glances that speak volumes and the promise of sexual pleasure if perhaps not fulfillment.

Ahn, who also wrote the screenplay, subtly teases out his protagonist’s inner struggle, often by letting David interact with the small but fine-grained gallery of supporting characters. Eddie, for example, is a Korean frat-bro type whose smile and hard body would be hard to resist even when not drunk, though he seems pretty straight and David, in any case, is too shy to make a move. But he’s not just a hunk for David to dream over, as Eddie is also a more open-minded guy than his church-going mother, telling David his (unseen) gay roommate at USC is “alright” before suggesting David sleep in his bed. Through seemingly throwaway details such as these, Ahn manages to paint a picture both of David’s slow realization of his own sexuality and how the children of immigrants tend to adapt to the (also changing) mores of their parents’ new home country.

Similarly, when David starts working at the spa, Ahn doesn’t go the easy route. Instead of David being simply turned on by all the naked flesh, the respectable facility’s grouchy and annoyed owner (Ho Young Chung) asks his young employee to police the upstairs rooms, where illegal gay makeout sessions seem to occur from time to time, putting David in the supremely awkward position of having to look for what he secretly craves so he can put a premature end to it, which thus subliminally suggests some of his inner struggle.   

If David slowly comes into his own as a gay man in the separate world of the spa, things at home don't progress quite as naturally. Though clearly intelligent — he speaks both fluent English and Spanish on top of Korean — his studies require a lot of hard work and things between his parents are going downhill since the focus of all their attention as well as the only source of their income is now gone. Ahn, perhaps drawing on personal experience, has a good eye for the complex dynamics of a working-class immigrant family trying to get by, with especially the wistful conversations between David and his Mom insightful and touching. Her repeated admission that she would have liked a sibling for David but that the money simply wasn’t there, for example, simultaneously illuminates the clan’s pecuniary hardships, some of their emotional regrets and the very real limits of the American Dream for an immigrant family.

Though more mainstream-oriented audiences will not be on board with Ahn’s brand of subtlety, for those willing to fully invest themselves, Spa Night offers a carefully considered story about identity or rather identities, with David having to figure out a way to accommodate his orientation and his position as the only child of Korean immigrants in L.A. The spa, though initially an exotic-looking place, might (spoilers ahead) finally offer the possibility to find a workable entente, as the spa where David works is not only owned by a Korean but the phenomenon in general is ingrained in Korean culture. Indeed, it is significant that the film opens with father and son at a spa and towards the end David pops his cherry in a steam room at work while his father is also present — though in a relaxation room elsewhere — thus bringing David’s two worlds together.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Competing)
Production companies: Nonetheless Productions, Extraordinary Renditions, First Birthday Production
Cast: Joe Seo, Youn Ho Cho, Haerry Kim, Tae Song, Eric Jeong, Janice Pak, Angie Kim, Kahyun Kim, Ho Young Chung, Linda Han, Esteban Andres Cruz
Writer-director: Andrew Ahn
Producers: David Ariniello, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim, Kelly Thomas
Executive producers: Il Ahn, Terry Ahn, Mattia Bogianchino, Beatrice Camerana, James Kuan, Marco Mazzonetto
Director of photography: Ki Jin Kim
Production designer: Hyein Ki
Costume designer: Emily Moran
Editor: Yannis Chalkiadakis
Casting: Julia Kim
Sales: The Film Sales Company

Not rated, 97 minutes