Review: ‘Spa Night’ Opens the Asian American International Film Festival On A Strong, Insightful Note

Photo: Ki Jin Kim

Photo: Ki Jin Kim

By Melissa Kim, special to Mochi Magazine

David, Spa Night’s protagonist, is a withdrawn, filial kid, almost painfully so.

“Dad, I can’t breathe,” David says in the film’s first line of dialog. Delivered in Korean, these words hang upon us in the steamy haze of a sauna.

“Just bear it a little longer,” his father replies. He does.

Director Andrew Ahn’s feature kicked off opening night at this year's Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) in New York City. The film paints a thoughtful portrait of a young man discovering his sexuality in Los Angeles—or, more notably, the city's Koreatown. Ahn creates intimate scenes within the densely populated chaos of Koreatown, very unlike the boisterous party-infused world portrayed in recent years by web series and web series-turned-films such as “K-town” and “Ktown Cowboys.”

David, played by Joe Seo, is a nice kid. An only child, he sings hymns in church (in Korean) alongside his parents. He’s polite to his parents’ friends. He takes walks with his mother, trails his intoxicated father into the night to assure his safety, and slips money into (yes, into) his mother’s wallet.

The rest of the time we see him solo, taking discreet selfies, working out at home, and jogging along Wilshire Boulevard, a main thoroughfare of Los Angeles which stretches from downtown to Santa Monica by way of Koreatown.

When David does break away from his closely knit family for an overnight college visit, we finally feel some breathing room. But when he attends a party, he’s achingly out of place; a quiet turmoil of discomfort in a new setting which shakes us from his solitude, only to make us realize that the loneliness was actually comforting in comparison.

When his parents’ financial struggles push them to sell their restaurant, David takes a job at a Korean spa to help out. He discovers that it’s a meeting place for gay hookups; David is gay, though he is the only one that knows.

Many elements in the film that may seem insignificant to those unfamiliar with Korean culture stand as beacons of Korean identity: rough little ddeh soo gun (때수건) scrub towels, a peel-off face mask, a heaping bowl of red bean shaved ice, the gloriously long tendril of skin peeled off of an expertly cut piece of fruit. And then there’s the more ostensibly Korean nature of the spa itself (or bath house, as it may otherwise be categorized), the proper way of pouring a bottle of soju, the honorific bows at a grave site, and the celebration of a baby’s first birthday (which was the subject of Ahn’s 2011 short film Dol).

And what perhaps strikes even more of a chord for Korean Americans (or any second generation American) is when we see the kid working at the family business, a scene that hits close to home.

You could say this is a story about a closeted, gay Korean American. Or, about any one of us who have ever kept anything from our parents, for fear we might hurt or disappoint them in some way. Because how can we not wrestle with the damage we might inflict upon our parents’ dreams, so much of which now rest upon us, when they have given up theirs to raise us?

Spa Night will be released theatrically in New York on 8/19 at the Metrograph and in Los Angeles on 8/26. AAIFF (http://aaiff.org/2016/) runs from July 21-30, 2016.