It may not be common knowledge that Southern California is home to the largest population of Korean Americans in the country. Perhaps it is more widely known that the three square miles known as “Koreatown" in Los Angeles make up the most densely populated neighborhood of the city. Anyone who has had to park a car there can attest that empty spots are hard to find. And with such a thriving community in L.A., it is no wonder that there are approximately 40 Korean spas throughout the city. These spas, jimjilbang in Korean, are traditionally communal places where families and friends meet to be social. Instead of attending a restaurant or a bar, bonding over the ritual of eating and drinking, people might choose to gather at the spa and bond over the ritual of cleansing and renewal.
“Spa Night,” the first feature-length by 30-year-old, Korean American filmmaker Andrew Ahn uses the setting of the Korean spa to tell a story of a Korean family living in Los Angeles, struggling in their ongoing pursuit of the fabled “American Dream” after immigrating to this country over 20 years ago. Written and directed by Ahn, “Spa Night” is largely a story about family, its bonds and expectations, and intersecting cultural identities. Through the characters of the Korean family: Jin, the father; Soyoung, the mother; and David, their 20-something year-old American-born son, Ahn crafts a multilayered and nuanced American story about the harsh and disappointing realities of living as an ethnic minority in the United States, even in a city as culturally diverse as L.A. While that struggle is universal and relatable to most immigrant communities, Ahn’s film is also uniquely Korean.
“We have to recognize the differences in everybody’s struggles and that everybody’s story is specific and has its challenges and difficulties,” Ahn says. “One of the reasons why I wanted to make “Spa Night” was because I felt like there wasn't a lot of representation about the Asian American immigrant struggle on film that felt really authentic to me.”
“Spa Night” centers on the character of David, who is living at home in Koreatown with his parents and works in the family’s restaurant. When the restaurant is forced to close its doors, David gets a job at a Korean spa so he can help bring some money in. But, David is holding onto a secret. He is sexually attracted to other men but he doesn't speak about it. In fact, David spends much of the film in restrained silence as he notices other men and their bodies. Ahn, who was born and raised in the L.A. area and identifies as a gay man, shares that the inspiration for the film came from when a gay male friend of his told him that he “had a hot hook-up with another guy” in the steam room of a local Korean spa.
“That sounded really crazy to me because the Korean spa is a very cultural space for me,” Ahn explains. “It’s a place I went with my family. I would scrub myself next to my dad with all these other naked Korean men. So when I found that it was being appropriated or used in this way by the gay community here, I thought it was really shocking. But also at the same time kind of sexy and interesting.”
“Spa Night” tells a very different account of the queer Asian American experience than Ahn told in his critically acclaimed short film, “Dol (First Birthday),” which premiered in 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Narrative Short at Outfest. While “Dol (First Birthday)” highlights the distinct separate lives that queer people are often forced to maintain because they don't know how else to bridge their family culture with their sexuality, “Spa Night” uses the location of the Korean spa to force David to confront his plural identities.
“As I was growing up, it was very easy for me to separate my gay identity from my Korean identity,” Ahn says. “In this location of the spa, they kind of intersected and I wanted to see what that intersection would reveal.”
For Ahn, it was important that this film not be all about “hook-ups” in the spa, but rather an exploration of an identity that is seemingly in contrast with the other identities people hold. This isn't a typical coming out film but rather a coming-of-age-story. It is about personally accepting all the parts that make up who you are with all the challenges and disappointments that come with such an undertaking. To achieve this, Ahn rewrote an early version of the script to be less about a fateful night at the spa, and he created much more prominent roles for David’s parents.
“In that version of the script you didn’t see David interacting with his Korean-ness and for me, my Korean-ness is very much wrapped up in family. So you needed to see his family more,” Ahn explains. “I think this is the interesting thing about being the child of immigrants is that my Korean identity is not informed by my citizenship, or the language I speak, the country I live in, or the culture I consume, my Korean identity is almost entirely about my relationship with my parents. There’s something very heteronormative about that. That my Korean-ness is a mother, a father, and a child. So as I think about my Korean identity, if I don’t have a child in the way that my brother or my father had with their Korean wives, am I less Korean because of my gay identity? Because I can’t perpetuate the family structure?”
One of the major forces driving Ahn to make films is a desire to help combat the common struggle that queer people of color go through in having very few models to look up to in mainstream media. Ahn lists “Gameboi,” the gay Asian American theme night at Rage nightclub in West Hollywood, and actor-comedian Margaret Cho as a few of the only representations of queer Asian American identities in the public sphere.
“I think it’s a really unfair, difficult thing for queer people of color to navigate,” says Ahn. “With ‘Spa Night,’ I wanted to create something that felt both very Korean and also very gay at the same time, to kind of forge some sort of authentically queer Asian American cultural document. There have to be spaces for [individuals] that can now be considered both of those things.”
Click here to find out where "Spa Night" is screening.