Struggling with not only his sexuality but also his identity as a young Korean-American, the closeted son of immigrant parents turns to Los Angeles’ cruisy Korean sauna scene in hopes of answering where he belongs in “Spa Night.” While his parents enjoy body scrubs and shaved ice, 18-year-old David Cho (Joe Seo) seeks forbidden thrills amid the steam — although first-time writer-director Andrew Ahn has approached the subject tastefully enough that middle-aged women (identifying with his exasperated mother, stuck trying to do right by both her drunkard husband and distracted son) may actually get more out of the movie than gay audiences.
Shot on real Koreatown locations — and featuring mostly Korean dialogue — the low-key exercise represents a valuable cultural artifact, despite its limited commercial prospects: Located just under Hollywood’s nose, it depicts one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant immigrant communities, taking place in the Korean restaurants, churches, karaoke bars and, yes, bathhouses found there — the latter happen to be the sort that Robert Randolph accused John Travolta and other celebs of frequenting in his trashy 2012 tell-all “You’ll Never Spa in This Town Again.”
Making its debut in competition at Sundance, CalArts grad Ahn’s highly personal story (developed via the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab) invents a timid protagonist in the relatively extroverted Ahn’s place. Painfully shy at times, David undeniably recognizes his desires — indicated by stolen glances in the steam or naked selfies he can’t quite find the nerve to share — but lacks even a single example of a gay man in his life. To complicate his journey, he couldn’t have chosen a more inopportune moment to investigate his sexuality.
David’s father (Youn Ho Cho) can no longer afford the lease on the family restaurant, and though his mom (Haerry Kim) quickly finds another waitressing gig via an old friend, Mrs. Baek (Linda Han), both parents insist that it’s time for David to make his own path. Were this a Caucasian family, such independence might come easily, though the bond is often stronger in Asian families, where respect and tradition impose pressures that many white children don’t experience — a phenomenon that has served as the basis of such radiant family portraits as “The Wedding Banquet” and “The Joy Luck Club.”
Cooler and less overtly comical than those films, the desaturated widescreen portrait finds David torn between his sense or filial responsibility and the almost glacial apathy he shows toward the life his parents have chosen for him. It also diverges from queer cinema’s traditional coming-out narrative (and as such, shouldn’t be limited to the LGBTQ fest circuit), since assuming his gayness isn’t nearly as important within the scope of the film as giving David a chance to establish an independent identity vis-a-vis his parents — and the expectations of the conservative community around him.
Gay or straight, practically anyone an relate to the dynamic between David’s mom and Mrs. Baek, who indiscreetly brags that her son Eddie (Tae Song) is currently enrolled at USC, suggesting that David visit him there. Despite the fact his parents are spending a small fortune on SAT-prep classes, David isn’t so keen on the idea of college, although the 24 hours spent with Eddie — which begins as a flirty co-ed outing, but ends with an overnight visit to a male-only spa — gets David’s fantasies churning.
He notices a “help wanted” sign at the spa’s front desk, and behind his parents’ backs, applies for the job, adopting another parental figure in the form of the spa manager (Ho Young Chung), who also also holds David to a high standard. Allowed to use the facilities as often as he likes, David quickly picks up on the strange, silent ritual that passes between the spa’s gay patrons, who check each other out in the open areas, then seek privacy for touching and more in the steam or upstairs sleeping room.
Cruising is a tricky dynamic to capture onscreen (the best example being the long, museum-stalking Steadicam sequence in Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”), and “Spa Night” only partially succeeds, concerned more with David’s bystander curiosity than the sophisticated nonverbal seduction going on around him. Then again, Ahn doesn’t aim to sensationalize. True to the paradoxical nature of Korean spa culture, the film is more comfortable with nudity than most Americans, and yet, the prospect that gay hookups might happen where others go to bathe remains shameful and virtually unspoken.
David eventually does cross the line with a customer, after which the film imposes an exaggerated penance upon him, forcing David to scrub himself raw in the shower, followed by an elaborate formal apology to his boss — just two more examples in a wide range of Korean rituals we might otherwise never see, from the proper way of pouring sake to a traditional dol ceremony (an infant fortune-telling ritual also featured in his Sundance-selected thesis short).
Ahn also includes the stories of how David’s parents came to America and everything they went through, but withholds the explosive confrontation of coming out to them. His parents’ inevitable disappointment aside, “Spa Night” serves as an homage to the sacrifices first-generation immigrants made in order that their children could achieve their full potential in the States, expanding the concept of “pride” far beyond its protagonist’s gay identity.