Reflections in a steam bath

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday September 28, 2016
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Joe Seo won a Sundance Special Grand Jury Award<br>performance as David in director Andrew Ahn's <i>Spa Night.</i><br> Photo: Strand Releasing
Joe Seo won a Sundance Special Grand Jury Award
performance as David in director Andrew Ahn's Spa Night.
Photo: Strand Releasing

Spa Night, a Sundance-commissioned intimate family drama, opens with David, a beautiful 19-year-old man whose parents emigrated from Korea to give him a leg up in life, standing semi-nude with his father at a small neighborhood steam bath. David wants to return to the modest Koreatown apartment the men share with his demanding mother.

As claustrophobic and funny as one of Philip Roth's Jewish family sagas, first-time feature director Andrew Ahn's film plants his good-little-boy protagonist (Joe Seo, in a Sundance Special Grand Jury Award performance) in a family-run business that, while a nightmare for David, provides us with a catbird seat's view of a complex immigrant community that has had more than its share of bad publicity. TV coverage showed Korean shopkeepers fending off looters with guns during the early-90s LA riots.

Although it enjoyed a prestigious debut at the Frameline festival this year, Spa Night is really less a queer-themed drama than part of an ever-expanding genre of films showing how a tidal wave of new immigrants are altering and being altered by the chaos of 21st-century America.

Ahn makes clear that despite their Herculean efforts to make it in America, David and his family are still just a major financial hiccup away from disaster. When his parents' small restaurant collapses under a sea of debt, David takes a job at an old-fashioned Korean male bathhouse, long a popular hangout for middle-aged men seeking a taste of the Old Country. He discovers to his shock that it has somehow morphed into a de facto late-night gay male sex club.

One of Spa Night's many pleasures is how director Ahn and his talented cast demonstrate the different strategies young Korean Americans use to be accepted as hip, productive Americans, while still clutching to remnants of their society's more conservative mores around dating, and taboos against same-sex behavior. Invited to a college party by the sexually dodgy son of one his mom's workmates, David gets mixed messages from the girls ("I want to see boys kiss") and from the hunky boys his age ("Hey man, can you stop looking at my dick?").

Those catching Spa Night for its overt homo makeout scenes need to be patient, for the film's erotic moment arrives only in the last minutes of the third act. Ahn also waits until late in the movie to stage a moving meltdown scene between David and his dad. Sitting in the shotgun seat of the family sedan, David innocently tells his father how much he has enjoyed working at their now-defunct restaurant.

Dad: "You're supposed to be better than that."

David: "I'm not."

"Yes, you are better than that. We didn't move here so you could move furniture. Go to college! Get a girlfriend! Move out!"

"What about you and Mom?"

"Don't worry about us, we'll be okay. I thought I could do better for you. I thought I could do more. You're such a good kid. That's why you'll make it. You're going to find success for all of us."

With its deft, open-ended ending, Spa Night paints a poignant picture of the role gay men and women are playing in elevating and expanding the definition of success in the early moments of this new Millennium.


Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater. In English and Korean, with English subtitles.