It's a really surreal experience to see my life reflected so much in a piece of media - to the point that I find myself crying and needing to stop. Andrew Ahn's Spa Night (2016) is subtle and slow with its storytelling but has moments of extremely potent emotion stitched into it that gut-punches you every time.
The film was suggested to me by a friend and the Netflix description caught my attention:
After a closeted Korean American teen takes a job in a local spa, he thinks about his own sexuality, his choices, and how to tell his traditional parents.
As a Korean American, I was obviously interested, for a plethora of reasons. I often feel like I'm straddling the line between being Korean and being American, whatever that means. I grew up watching Korean dramas and I remember idealizing Korean spas/saunas; they were places that you went to with friends and family, where you went when you didn't want to go home for the night, where people went to bond together over hard-boiled eggs. People are naked in the spas, and it's not weird because it's normal and familial.
So the fact that such an iconic location for Korean identity and community would become the setting for a film dealing in queer sexuality is astounding to me. Korean culture is so deeply rooted in conservatism, and the pressure is doubled when it comes to immigrant life. As children of immigrants, we're supposed to work hard towards the American Dream - any deviation from that ideal could be a major disappointment to our families and everything they worked for.
David faces this enormous pressure of having to "pay back" his parent's hard work by succeeding (success here is often measured by getting into a good college). But as a poor high school graduate with less than ideal test scores, David must forego college in order to help run his struggling family restaurant. There is a scene in which his parents take him to a 학원, which is essentially a tutoring academy and also a staple of the Korean student experience. But when the parents are discussing costs with the manager, tears immediately began to well up in my eyes. Despite the unaffordable cost, the dad grumbles and says they'll pay for the intensive classes, because they'll do anything for David to achieve academic success. I flashed back to my senior year of high school when this exact scenario happened to me.
When David begins to realize that he's attracted to men after picking up a part-time job at the local Korean sauna, the odds are stacked against him. Many Korean parents often rely on a good hetero marriage if a successful career doesn't work out. Not only is David consistently met with failure with his grades and schooling, he has already begun to fail his parent's heteronormative expectations as well. In this scenario, who could he possibly turn to when his (homophobic) peers are achieving success without him and his parents are barely hanging on? The stuffy and blue atmosphere of the spa where David works is purposeful as it captures this internal struggle. He is trapped in this quintessentially Korean space; he cannot leave it yet it embodies the source of his suffering.
There is an underground gay hookup scene unfolding in LA's Korean spas that no one saw coming. Even Andrew Ahn, the director, has said that it took him by surprise because of the familial and nostalgic qualities of Korean spas. In one scene, David engages in sexual activity with another Korean American guy while working at the spa and it is clear here that what David desires more so than sex is human interaction. The long take that occurs in the aftermath is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've ever seen.
I relate to David in many ways. Just like me, he's a young Korean American adult who doesn't quite get in with the other Korean Americans in his community; albeit his reasons for this are different than mine. Han Ly Hwang, chef and owner of the Kim Jong Grillin' food truck in Portland, stated in The Racist Sandwich podcast, that many Korean immigrants are already wealthy when they come over to America. Then the second generation kids grow up with a certain level of economic privilege, allowing them to diverge their attention to other things like getting perfect grades. That's not the case with David, whose family struggles owning a restaurant in the heart of Koreatown. My family too once owned a Korean restaurant, but in downtown LA. We were prospering too with the restaurant until we weren't. David struggles with his grades because so much of his energy has to go towards helping out with the restaurant. When his family eventually loses the restaurant, David finds a job at the titular spa in order to earn money for his family. But it is in this location where his other set of problems arise.
Spa Night is now available for streaming on Netflix.