Spa Night opens with two men sitting in silence on a sauna bench, sopping wet towels draped over their head as the steam circles around them and hits their skin. Although the opening scene is quite literally steamy, there is nothing sexual about it. The two men are in fact father and son, and the scene quickly cuts to the two scrubbing each other to rid themselves of impurities, before being joined by the mother, who wishes she had had a daughter to share the spa experience with.
In his first feature film after a pair of short films – Andy and Dol (First Birthday), that also explored coming of age within the Korean American community – it shows a remarkable resolve of writer-director Andrew Ahn to use such a place of tradition among the Korean American community, a place of replenishment and familial bonding, as the backdrop for a story of sexual discovery.
“I was definitely very concerned about using the Korean spa as a space for my main character to explore his sexuality!” Ahn tells SBS from Los Angeles. “Korean spas are a very cultural space, a healing space. However, it’s important to acknowledge that our sexuality and our cultural background are not separate entities in our identity. They intersect and influence each other. Once I understood that for myself, I moved forward in the process of making the film with more confidence.”
This is part of what makes Spa Night so interesting and special. Queer stories about Asian LGBTQIA+ characters are extremely rare, and in many ways, it echoes Australian film Head On in that at its heart, the film is about those very cultural traditions of one generation crashing and colliding full-speed into those of the next. Like Alex Dimitriadis’ Ari in Ana Kokkinos’ 1998 film, Spa Night's David (played by Joe Seo) has never known anywhere other than Los Angeles, and struggles with the expectations heaped upon him by his first-generation immigrant parents who toiled to give him a better life, albeit one he doesn’t necessarily desire.
Ahn tells me that although his film is not entirely autobiographic, he imparted - subconsciously or not - many of his own thoughts and feelings about having grown up in America onto his protagonist. “As a second-generation Korean-American, I’m very aware of how different my story is from my parents,” he notes, adding “I often feel this odd tension between my Koreanness and my Americanness.”
When David gets a job at the spa, it acts as a means of exploring both parts of himself – his cultural heritage and his burgeoning sexuality.
“David was going to explore his sexuality one way or another. The spa was convenient because it was a space he was familiar with culturally”, he says, laughing as he adds: “the nudity helps, too!”
One of the strengths of the film is the way Ahn gradually increases the visibility of queer imagery in the spa as if replicating the way David eyes are slowly opening to the world that has always been right there in front of him. Noticing a glance between patrons, then a gesture, soon David discovers an upstairs loft where men congregate to press the flesh, resisting his own urges to do the same. He observes the men of the facility as they walk around naked, often placing closed signs on the saunas to secretly allow privacy for the men inside. A silent act of rebellion.
“Sex is an undeniable part of our humanity. It’s messy and complicated and I can see why society has created certain boundaries; they exist to protect us,” Ahn says of sexuality in Korean cultures. “Slowly, I see society adapting. Cultures have adapted, transformed, shifted, and grown throughout all of human history. What we’re doing is not new, scary, or sacrilegious.”
Much of Spa Night’s power comes from the performance of the talented – and, yes, handsome – Joe Seo, who had worked primarily in short films before this. It is a performance full of internal anguish, quiet observations and lingered glances that won Seo a special acting prize at the Sundance Film Festival and which Ahn feels lucky to have been able to harness.
“Joe is amazing”, he says. “He came in to audition near the very end of our casting process [and] really embodied this character so well… He understood the meaningfulness of it and for that I am so grateful.”
Spa Night screens as a part of the Melbourne Queer Film festival tonight at 6:15. Click here for tickets.
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