What Does “Spa Night” Reveal About Second-Generation Korean-American Culture?



It would be remiss to describe Spa Night (2016) as simply the story of a closeted Korean-American who discovers his sexuality via an underground world of gay sex at the Korean spa where he works. The film is more than that – it is a deep and authentic exploration of Korean-American culture that avoids the common pitfalls and clichés in onscreen representations of the immigrant experience. Spa Night uses a specifically culturally Korean space – the spa – to discuss sexual and personal identities, the Korean family structure, and the relationship between first- and second-generation Korean-Americans.

Spa Night reveals as much about the disintegrating lives of parents Jin and Soyoung as it does about that of main protagonist, David Cho (Joe Seo). Soon after an idyllic opening scene in which the three cheerfully visit a brightly lit Korean spa, bonding in the name of family – the parents lightheartedly nagging about 20 year-old David’s lack of a girlfriend – both the characters and the audience are quickly jolted into an unpleasant reality. The parents lose ownership of their tofu restaurant and must come to terms with the fact that their decades-old desire to experience the American dream is unrealized. David, too, is at a crossroads and must figure out just what he wants for his future.

While all of the characters who exist in Spa Night’s universe seem extraordinarily familiar to second-generation Korean-Americans, none of them retread the stereotypes, clichés and melodrama that pepper the majority of Korean-American narratives. Director Andrew Ahn previously tackled the subject of Korean-Americans, identity and sexuality in his 2012 Sundance short Dol (First Birthday). The main setting of Dol is the home, the place where identity and sexuality is traversed and managed. Spa Night uses the setting of the spa to examine similar topics. As Ahn told me at Sundance 2016, “I am always going to be interested in Korean spaces. I am constantly inspired by the community. I also feel a responsibility to tell stories about our community, because there are so few.” He was inspired to set the story in the spa because of a rumor he had heard about discreet hand jobs being performed at one in West Hollywood.

The Korean spa is a fascinating space in the context of the generally conservative nature of Korean culture. Spas are a normal part of life for Koreans. They range from just-the-basics facilities, similar to showers you find at a gym, to all-decked-out luxury versions with a food court, water slides, and dozens of steam rooms, all with differing temperatures and heat sources. They are more than just a place for people to sweat and shower; they are a hub for socializing. Families go there. Boys and girls go on dates there. Church youths go on group outings there. Daughters teach moms how to wrap their hair up in the proffered hand towels, Princess Leia-style. Friends dare each other to last the longest in the hottest or the coldest of steam rooms. Think of Korean spas as a holdover from ancient Grecian baths, and you’ll understand how instilled these places are in the lives of both Koreans and Korean-Americans.

Korean spas are divided by gender. Aside from that touch of gender preservation, nudity is frank, casual and completely expected within the spa. Nudity, in that context, is entirely and absolutely unsexual. In a culture that expects and assumes men to hold their emotions in check and tactile touching to a minimum, it is customary for sons to scrub their father’s back while visiting a spa. (That scrubbing is a striking subversion of Korea’s normalized codes of rigid social hierarchy and upholding of personal space. Scrubbing is a way to prove or demonstrate the closeness of a pair’s relationship, and it is always reciprocal.)

Spa Night captures the physical intricacies of this atmosphere for cinema. As the film goes on and becomes more thematically sexual and erotic, Ahn consciously reduced the amount of nudity on display. Still, it’s significant that Ahn directed the cinematographer to stay the camera as close to David’s body as possible, to create both sympathy for his character as well as filter the film through what Ahn cheekily calls “gay gaze” (an inversion of the prevalent “male gaze” that typically regards females and exists in every media product on the planet).

An audience member at Spa Night’s premiere remarked that the movie was “hella Korean-American.” Indeed, it was filmed entirely on location in LA’s Koreatown; the cast was exclusively made up of Koreans or Korean-Americans; and Konglish (a blend of the Korean and English languages, along the lines of Spanglish) was used casually and realistically. Ahn opened up casting to both trained and non-trained actors in the Korean-American community. Being Korean-American and gay, Ahn deliberately made the choice to regard any potential hesitation or alienation from the larger Korean community not as an obstacle but as motivation to continue on with the creation of the film.

Spa Night is chockfull of achingly familiar characters: Mrs. Baek, the churchgoer, can’t help but humblebrag of her restaurant’s popularity or son’s attendance of USC. Stella and Esther, the giggly college girls who used to go to church with David, get drunk on both actual alcohol and the freedom that comes from being out of their parents’ watchful eye. Grace, who works the front desk at the spa, completely bored out of her mind, watches Korean dramas on repeat at work. Brusque Mrs. Kim, who has a business to run, doesn’t take on charity cases because they compromise the effectiveness and success of her moving and delivery business. The hakwon academy director, who tries to be empathetic with a struggling student, is biased because of the way he himself prevailed despite (superficial) hardships.

Few things bring together second-generation Korean-Americans like church, standardized test preparation and shared cultural grievances. While David hovers around the edge of the boisterous friendships and intimate relationships that seem to be available for everyone but him, the audience finds themselves identifying more with the silent David than the rest of the line-up of characters.

One of the most significant things that Ahn deliberately kept out of his script is the portrayal of a negative and toxic parent-child relationship. Neither Jin nor Soyoung aggressively pressure David about the SATs. Yes, they want David to succeed, and they see attending college and having a good job (that isn’t cooking or cleaning in a restaurant) as necessary for that success. Ahn boils Jin and Soyoung’s perspective down to this nutshell: “You get a little bit of the sense that the parents see the limitations of their lives and the promise of what’s left is with you, and how much you really want, as a son, to get that payoff.” Spa Night is not the type of movie in which the parents threaten to disown their child for not living up to their unrealistic and unspoken expectations. David is not the rebellious son who must come-of-age via the uncovering of his sexual identity. Rather, Jin and Soyoung’s unconditional love and support seemingly make it harder for David to disappoint them by not marrying a nice Korean girl, by wanting different things than what his family and community expect.

David’s sexuality is never really finalized, even by the end of the film. Both Ahn and Seo were resolute in avoiding labeling David as anything but “not fully straight.” The most we can extrapolate from the film is that he’s curious, he’s interested in the development of his own body (and by extension, other male bodies), and he’s in the midst of forming his sexual identity. That sexual identity formation definitely has an arc: the film begins with his ramping up his workout regimen, which he keeps track of through mirror selfies. He isn’t so much unnerved or disturbed by the discovery of canoodling men in the spa as he is taken aback and intrigued. The spa, with its range of clientele, allows him to explore his sexuality in a safe space – that is, with non-Korean men. Ahn explains that it’s “safer” because these men “are outside the [Korean] community. There’s less opportunity for gossip. But when he meets a Korean guy at the end, David feels an intense connection that he feels the need to act on.”

During the first two acts of the movie, David is the silent and strong type. He doesn’t want to mess up the status quo, and he is fully aware of the sacrifices his parents had to make in order for them to live and work in LA. He holds his emotions and desires in as close as possible but feels on the verge of boiling over at any point. Near the end of the film, however, he finally gives into his attraction and has sex with the lithe Korean-American man who sits next to him in the steam room – only to get caught. Once he stares down the disapproving spa owner, he goes to wash up. He starts scrubbing at himself, harder and harder, until his side is rubbed raw, and he can’t help but let out an anguished sob. However, he is not crying because of shame or a feeling of being dirty. This is a moment of relief. He’s finally given in to his desires, and he feels catharsis. He is scrubbing to find the new him, the real him, the “him” that can move forward and truly and happily live.

Whether or not the viewer is a second-generation Korean-American or knows much of the culture going into the film, David’s sense of relief and agency is relatable and freeing. To come to terms with one’s identity – sexual or not – when that identity is at complete odds with the expectations of one’s family or community and to feel buoyed after embracing that identity instead of drowning in it: this is the remarkable and universal journey of Spa Night.

Ahn divulges that the movie was hard to end. This isn’t a film that begets a neat resolution. What we see is David running at top-speed along the streets of Koreatown the night after his parents’ huge fight, the morning after finally having had that sexual experience at the spa. He’s spent the majority of the film unenthusiastically jogging through those same streets. This time, though, he’s moving so fast that all the signs, storefronts, and people blur together. He’s determined. He stops to catch his breath at a stoplight before running out of frame.

In this final scene, Ahn showcases David’s agency as he moves forward with his life, sexuality and identity. David literally exits his family’s expectations and pressures, coming into an earned sense of strength and self-understanding.

Read ScreenPrism’s full interview with Andrew Ahn, Haerry Kim and Joe Seo the day after Spa Night’s Sundance premiere here.