“Spa Night” is a complex, quietly powerful drama about ethnicity and gay identity, written and directed by Andrew Ahn. David (Joe Seo) is a shy, closeted young man who lives in LA’s Koreatown with his father Jin (Youn Ho Cho), and his mother Soyoung (Haerry Kim). When Jin loses the family restaurant, David secretly takes a job at a Korean spa. The experience transforms him. He witnesses naked male guests engaging sexually with each other and slowly embraces his own sexuality. In the process, he becomes more independent of his family.
Ahn’s film is a minor masterpiece that benefits immensely from Seo’s extraordinary performance. He conveys David’s shame, his pent-up desires, and the emotions they unleash with just the slightest expression and body language.
Ahn and Seo spoke with Gay City News about their hot film.
GARY M. KRAMER: Andrew, What prompted you to tell this story? How much of it reflects your upbringing?
ANDREW AHN: Emotionally, David aligns with who I am and my coming of age. My Korean and gay identities were separate when I was growing up, but when I heard of a friend hooking up at a Korean spa, I knew this location would be a great location for setting a film that talked about a gay Korean’s identity.
GMK: Joe, How did you identify with the character of David?
JOE SEO: It was a difficult character because he is more reserved than I am. His fight is internal. I related to it as an immigrant story that parallels with mine. Your parents expect and want things for their kids, and the kids can’t cope with what their parents want and how the [kids] want to live in America. My parents want me to “stop the acting nonsense and go into medicine.” This struggle transcends Asian American-ness. It goes to every immigrant American family.
GMK: What observations do you have about Korean parents and their expectations for their children?
AA: As I developed the screenplay, David’s dilemma becomes harder because his parents love him so much. Because he wants to preserve that relationship, his sexuality is scary. This fear that he is not going to give his parents what they expect and want. For me, it was that the parents love him and he loves them.
JS: In Asian families, no matter how old you are, you don’t talk back to your parents. You can’t tell Dad that he is messing up. You can’t say that without being hit. It’s taboo.
GMK: Andrew, Can you talk about creating the hothouse atmosphere in the film and what or how much you wanted to show? There is casual nudity, but the gay sex scenes are more sensual than explicit.
AA: I was talking to my cinematographer, Ki Jin Kim, about this. When we wanted the Korean spa to be a cultural space, we would see a lot of nudity, in a very matter of fact way. As the film got more sexual, we would see less and less and less, and more of a subjective point of view: parts of bodies, looks, or see things through steam. We wanted to suggest a lot, and I think that that helped in many ways. Sex scenes are difficult to direct and for actors to be in. To break it up made it easier. It allowed us to craft these moments and play with the pacing and make sure the erotic moments could stretch the time, so it stands still. As for the space itself, we were gunning for the location, which had this fantastical quality — the blue neon is very evocative. Many of the spas in Koreatown are beige. They are calming, relaxed spaces, and this one felt electric.
GMK: Joe, your poker face and body language are very expressive. Can you talk about how you approached playing the character in this other, physical sense?
JS: That’s all Andrew. He would tell me — “That’s not David.” The character couldn’t get angry. Andrew led me the right way to keep it internal and made me remember why David is here at that moment and why he wouldn’t be this way or that way. He made sure that I was playing David’s developing.
AA: I wanted David to be a real person, and I feel that means having sexual desires and urges and being a son and wanting to do right by your parents. I love the juxtaposition that he’s having dinner with his family in one scene and then being cruised in the spa in the next. We have different sides and are one way in one space and another in another space.
GMK: Andrew, what can you say about the issue of homosexuality in Asian culture in general and Korean culture in particular?
AA: I think actually, homosexuality is becoming more accepted in Korean culture. It’s more progressive in Korea than in the Korean-American community in LA, which hasn’t progressed much. It’s changing, and I’m excited that “Spa Night” can help that dialogue. When I looked for other gay Korean people growing up, I could only think of Margaret Cho. It took time for me to realize and find a queer Korean-American community.
GMK: What can you say about your experiences in spas?
AA: When I heard about the gay cruising from my friend, I had to see it for myself. It really does happen in a blatant way that is shocking. I had to prove it to people while I was trying to make this film. It’s a really insane kind of environment, and what makes it crazier it can be very erotic and the next minute can be Korean cultural. The space continually changes and morphs and that fascinates me.
JS: I did not go to Korean spas in Los Angeles until I made this movie. I hate hot rooms and humidity!
SPA NIGHT | Directed by Andrew Ahn | Strand Releasing | Opens Aug. 19 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Canal & Hester Sts. | metrograph.com