Film Review: Spa Night

An instant classic of Asian-American, gay...oh hell, just cinema. This ethnic and sexual immersion is as richly rewarding as it is quietly and impressively achieved.
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David Cho (Joe Seo) is just 18, but already his entire life seems mapped out for him. The only child of immigrant Korean parents, he works hard at the restaurant his father Jin (Youn Ho Cho) and mother Soyoung (Haerry Kim) own, while they dream, save and scheme for a better American life for him, consisting of a good college, followed by a good job and proper Korean wife. The problem is that this program isn't exactly what their shy and uncertain son wants. His yearnings for men both tantalize and upset him, while he's equally uncomfortable interacting with hard-partying heterosexual kids his own age, like Eddie (Tae Song), whose mother arranges for David, arduously and expensively preparing for the SAT tests, to observe him at his college, the University of Southern California.

The Chos unfortunately lose their business, and Soyoung goes to work for Eddie's mother, while father and son scratch about for menial jobs. David winds up secretly taking one in a local spa, where the naked men and furtive homosexual encounters he observes additionally fuel his frustrations. 

There are certain films which happen along that can be, objectively speaking, almost too close for comfort, and—begging the reader's indulgence—for this reviewer, Spa Night more than qualifies. Like its protagonist, I am a gay Korean American, also named David, who also spent time at USC. Like him, I know all too well the special pressures and pain engendered by being different in a family and ethnic society at odds with one's true nature, which is the focus of Andrew Ahn's classic film. Why that adjective? David's hesitant, quiet and yet rending story gets told here with a striking candor and far-reaching sensitivity that helps to make it instantly relatable to anyone, regardless of background, and for me that's the definition of a classic. Ahn vividly limns the limited terrain of this very Korean (and stifling) world, the churchgoing, noisy restaurants, karaoke bars and, yes, spas where steam is literally let off, positing it as nothing more than a prison for someone like its hero, whose individuality is silently screaming to be released. Ki Jin Kim's handsome, richly hued cinematography is a huge asset, capturing in human detail the slightest looks which can mean so much, as well as the full seraglio-like, sweaty sensuality of the bathhouse. 

Every movie missive about an unfamiliar world needs the right messenger and guide, and Ahn has been fortunate indeed in the casing of Seo. Poetically, even nobly, handsome, the actor gives an understated but compellingly fresh performance, and while he’s seemingly deadpan throughout most of the film, he uncannily also manages to be emotionally transparent and without a trace of self-pity, even as he breaks your heart. Furtiveness and humiliation dog poor David's days, and for those who may find all this too much of an unrelieved downer—with his jogging through L.A.'s Koreatown seemingly his only respite—I, for one, can vouch for the film’s moody authenticity, as this young period in my life was often nearly as sad. With repressed—nearly shut-down—characters like this, there eventually must be a turning point, and David's is utterly devastating, a literal self-scourging, which Seo makes both tragically true and shockingly unforgettable.

But Spa Night happens to be more than a mere coming-out tale, for its address of the current economic crisis, as shown here in the Chos' downward spiral, makes it one of the few current American films to be even cognizant of what is happening in this country. This is where his parents, for whom the American Dream has failed, get to really have their say, proving themselves more than perpetual judgmental and conformist thorns in their son's side. The never-ending emphasis on money, of which there is never enough, and maintaining appearances, so important in traditional Korean society, is at the root of a constant parental bickering so familiar to their offspring (and me, growing up) and so at odds with, say, a much quieter Japanese handling of things.

Ahn is a real humanitarian, however; his is no tired “boy good/parents bad” conception, and he gives the elder Chos their say, with a memorable epiphany for each. Strolling through the neighborhood one afternoon with David, Soyoung reminisces about the ever-smaller houses they pass, different ones they once lived in, which bespeak the family's financial decline, while also recalling the bright expectations she had as a newly arrived bride from Korea, picked up by her groom in an "impressive" used Cadillac. She also laments not having another child, who could have kept David company (and lessened the pressure on him considerably). The more frenetically energized Jin, after being excoriated by Soyoung for once again drinking away the money she works so hard to earn (a problem not unique to the Korean immigrant experience by a long shot), finally does the unthinkable and completely "loses face" before his son, breaking down, praising him for always being nothing but dutiful and urging him to go away, having failed him as a father, and lead his own life, however mistaken he may be of what exactly that would be.

The gay angle of the film is in itself an entire subplot, which, in this wondrously unpredictable film, even supersedes David's tortured sexual evolution. Forever scrubbing the place clean, he becomes intrigued observer—spy, really—of semi-covert, meaning-filled glances and gestures being exchanged, and then what inevitably happens when you throw a bunch of naked men together. Ahn handles all of this with an antenna-like sensitivity and, abetted by an easy, natural use of male nudity, achieves an erotic force which, steamily languorous yet volcanically potent, evokes no less than Jean Genet's short but wickedly suggestive and beautiful Un chant d'amour. For this bold approach to sexuality on film, so rare in this country regardless of gender, as well as its depiction of a coming out particularly germane to my personal experience but universal to all, I am deeply grateful to this quite wonderful film.

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