One of the best things about independent films is that they often explore deeper issues than mainstream cinema does. In the case of Spa Night, the first feature-length film from writer/director Andrew Ahn, it means exploring the crossover of growing up as a Korean-American and growing up gay. Spa Night is a departure from big studio products in several ways: it features an almost entirely Asian cast, it tells a story that is often unheard in the traditionally conservative Korean-American community, and it turns the typical coming of age/coming out story on its ear.
That Spa Night is an Asian-American story is nearly as important as that it’s a queer story, especially with the recent racist dust ups from major studios casting white actors as Asian characters in their big budget productions.
“The interesting thing with Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange,” Andrew agrees, “is that those are big budget films, and it’s studio heads making these decisions. Within the Asian-American community there’s been a lot of discussion about how we change people’s minds, how we make it so that Asian people get these roles. I really think independent film is the first step. As hard as it is to make an independent film, it’s still easier to do that than change the head of a studio’s mind about casting.“
The film’s story also leaves off the traditional gay storyline. In Spa Night, there’s no Hollywood-style happy ending. David, the main character, doesn’t ride off into the sunset with his new boyfriend, his family happily supporting him the whole way. It’s a film full of tension, ending more with resignation than resolution. In that way it speaks to the reality of many young, queer people at the intersection of issues beyond their queerness.
“I think it’s the frontier for queer films to talk about intersectionality,” says Andrew. “In some ways, slowly but surely, we’re getting a handle on queerness. But it’s how queerness interacts with how we grew up, or our ethnicity, or our religious upbringing that complicates things. I think there’s a lot of interesting stories there that haven’t been told.
“Spa Night, for me, one was way to push the genre of queer film forward.”
While this is in no way an overtly political film, at least in its story, it could be seen as one just by existing. Recent political victories for the queer community, followed up by even more recent political setbacks, underscore the need to look at the variety of intersections in the queer community. While our queerness ties us together, we are often separated by a variety of differences such as race, culture, gender, and economic status.
Spa Night succeeds, then, by taking a very personal story, one that is in many ways unique to a very specific community, and telling it in such a way that people outside of that community can relate to it.
“I was really aware of the fact that this film is a niche film,” Andrew admits. “At the same time, I was pushing and working really hard to make a strong film so that it could resonate with a wider audience. If I could really convey David’s difficulties, his struggle, I feel like a lot of people would actually find connections to their own lives, even if they aren’t queer Asian-American.”
He really succeeded with that in my case, at least. As a white, queer man who grew up in a somewhat conservative, religious, midwestern environment, I could certainly relate to David’s struggle with reconciling his need to explore his sexuality with his need to maintain his relationship to his family. In that respect, David’s circumstances were far from unique.
One of the most surprising things about the movie was that it featured very little sex. After all, sex is clearly on the forefront of David’s mind. There is certainly a great deal of sexual tension, compounded by the presence of familial and financial tensions. And sexuality, in some ways, surrounded David, especially once he takes a job at a Korean men’s spa.
Initially, the sexuality was even a concern for Andrew.
“I remember sending [the screenplay] to a friend of mine,” he confesses. “I asked for feedback and he said that at some point he just had to do a work search, and find out how many times penis was in the screenplay. I think it was something like 60 times!”
But Andrew demonstrates a deft hand and clear vision when it comes to telling this story and translating it to the screen. The frequent nudity is stark and overt in a way that you wouldn’t see in pornography. Ahn captures many of the illicit activities we see through the eyes of David, giving us tightly framed, furtive glimpses of the things David discover peering around corners while on the job.
“In the screenplay, the sex really dominated,” he tells me. “If you see it on the page, it consumes your idea of the film. But then, as we filmed it, we realized that really the heart of the film was the family, and David’s relationship to his parents. I realized that it’s the balance of those two things–his family obligation and his sexual exploration–that make both of those things more interesting. He’s one human being dealing with both of those things at the same time, and they start to influence each other. That’s a really common experience.”
Hearing him talk about the project, it’s easy to hear the passion he has for it. It’s very personal for him, which makes one wonder how much of his story do we see in the film.
“I’ve lived a very different life from David,” he admits. “I have an older brother, so I’m not an only child. And I went to college. I went to Brown. But emotionally, I feel a strong kinship with David and that character. I really put a lot of where I was and my identity formation when was in my late teens into that character. Fortunately, I’ve had a little bit of distance from that time period so that I feel like I could tell it objectively.”
That’s not to say that it was an easy project, even when you don’t consider the difficulties inherent to creating an independent film. Even if the story isn’t directly drawn from Andrew’s own life, the story is very much his own.
“There was a moment in the film, it’s a very small scene, but David comes back from USC and he take’s a toothpick out of his [sleeping] dad’s mouth. I remember watching that at Sundance, with my parents a few seats down, and remembering that I stole that moment from my own life, where I did that for my dad. And then I realized that he wouldn’t remember that because he was sleeping, and I just started crying.
“Making a very personal film, sometimes you forget how personal it is because you’re distracted by all the creative and logistical decisions that you have to make. It’s not until you see the finished product that you remember: Oh, I took that from my life.”
Ahn’s work has been well received in the film festival circuit thus far. Joe Seo, the actor in the leading role as David, even received the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance there. Joe’s performance is an incredibly important part of the film’s impact, which Andrew recognizes.
“We were really, really fortunate to find him. We were scared that actors weren’t going to be up for the challenges of the role: that it was a gay character, that it involved nudity, that it involved sex. It’s a tricky role, and he really went for it very confidently and with a lot of passion.”
Spa Night presents the viewer with an engrossing and challenging emotional journey. It offers a well-crafted glimpse into the often unseen intersections between family, culture and queerness, and it a must see for anyone who’s struggled with reconciling personal identity and family dynamics.
Andrew says that plans are in the works for a limited theatrical release for the film sometime this fall. As far as the future holds, he says that he’s been working a few books and article adaptations, and is interested in expanding into television as well. If Spa Night is any indicator, he’ll no doubt continue taking the entertainment and storytelling world by storm.