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SIFF ADVANCE: Spa Night - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

Here is a movie that is uniquely American, yet feels foreign to many Americans: Spa Night's dialogue is 70% in Korean, with subtitles. The setting is the densely populated Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown, and the focus on a small Korean family whose son, David (Joe Seo), is recently out of high school, struggling with test scores to get the college opportunities his parents hope for him, and with his homosexuality.

This family's experience is a window into another world for viewers looking in from places far away from neighborhoods like this, but surely it's very familiar to many first- and second-generation Koreans, or even American-raised children of immigrants. Writer-director Andrew Ahn was at the SIFF screening I attended, and when introducing the film, he went out of his way to reference recent controversies about "white washing" in American film, where white actors are getting cast in parts written for Asian characters. And he stressed how much of an American film this is. I wonder how conscious I might have been of that had he not set it up in that manner. With the suggestion that the film be viewed that way, however, he's certainly right. Spa Night reflects a culture far from the American mainstream, but it's still a reflection of cultural intersectionality that could never exist anywhere else in the world.

The spa the characters visit is a fascinating setting, at least for gay viewers, who are used to spas being associated with the gay sex of bathhouses. Evidently spa visits in the Korean community are common, but at least as shown in this film, there's a duality to the world within. In the opening sequence, we find David and his father (Youn Ho Cho) bathing side by side. They even take turns scrubbing each other's backs. David later discovers other patrons engaging in furtive sex play. It would have been an interesting choice if the film was set entirely inside the spa, but Ahn doesn't linger there for too long. We also see the restaurant David's parents run together, which they soon lose presumably due to insufficient revenue. In one diverting sequence, David visits a former church friend now going to school at USC. Only later do we return to the spa, when David applies for an open job position.

David's expression of his own sexuality is quite slow to bloom, and never really leaves the realm of subtlety even up to the story's oddly abrupt ending. His struggle for self-actualization is still affecting. While out with his friend and others at USC, they play a drunken game of "chicken" to see who can go farthest with a same-sex kiss. This scene is a fascinating reflection of our time and the way young people approach their sexuality. The straight guy, confident and secure in his straightness, tells David to watch out: "I'm fearless." And in the end it's David who backs away, clearly fearful of a truth that transcends a dare.

Spa Night has a pace that could have picked up steam (so to speak), but it has a lot going for it, not least of which is its unforced reflection of a slice of Americana that avoids stereotypes. This can easily be attributed to a Korean-American filmmaker casting his film entirely with Korean-Americans and reflecting a truth of his own experiences. There's a lot shown in this movie that thousands of Americans surely find familiar but which never gets shown in American cinema. In one scene, David speaks fluent Spanish with a guy who delivers supplies to his parents' restaurant. It might seem odd to consider the Latino community in Koreatown, but it turns out Koreatown's population is actually over half Latino. Who knew? Probably the people living there.

Koreatown is by far the most densely populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, and with the exception of the USC excursion, the characters never leave the neighborhood. It feels to some like a different world, but it's one of many uniquely authentic experiences that are unfortunately lost on too much of Middle America -- or at least, the more racially and culturally homogenous regions of the country. But we need more movies like this, which reflect what America broadly really is: a nation built by and on and comprised of immigrants and their descendants. The director of this film is clearly proud of his heritage, but I would stop short of calling Spa Night a love letter to his city, or even this neighborhood. The story is ultimately a tad too downbeat for that.

I would have liked a bit more hopefulness in this story. David and his family struggle and they struggle, and we are given little reason to see how they might pull themselves out of it. David does not excel academically, though through no particular fault of his own: he helped out with his parents' restaurant and that pulled his focus. His parents are saddened by their inability to open the doors of opportunity they attempted to find for him by moving to America.

Spa Night is about a closeted young gay Korean-American man whose coming-out scene never comes. Andrew Ahn doesn't seem to feel that's the point or the endgame here, and perhaps he's right to take the story in subtler and unexpected directions. This makes the movie engaging but somewhat lacking in dramatic tension. It's a worthy film but one that makes it difficult to say who it's worthy for. Especially after a surprisingly unsatisfying ending, most audiences are likely to find themselves wanting more from a movie than this can offer them. It worked for me though.

Joe Seo engages in some self-reflection in SPA NIGHT.

Overall: B
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