Movie Review - Spa Night

Writer-director Andrew Ahn's film is an interesting glimpse into Korean-American life and culture. We see customs and traditions that are different and unique to Koreans. Events at a baby's first birthday or what one does at a loved one's grave prove to be illuminating. There's also a glimpse into social status and how that affects behavior among this particular minority. That being said, there's much that is relatable to other minorities as well as all people.

While it might be more obvious to compare this film to other more recent Asian-American films, especially Asian-Americans dealing with their sexuality like Front Cover by Ray Yeung or Eat With Me by David Au, a film that came to mind was My Brother the Devil, a movie that wasn't about Asians in the United States but instead a Middle Eastern family in the United Kingdom. There is a synonymous scene or in fact the same scene in both films where we see a son sneak money into the purse of his mother. As much as both movies are about a young man discovering his same-sex attraction, it's also about familial responsibility and obligation within impoverished, immigrant groups.

Joe Seo stars as David, a senior in high school. He lives in Koreatown in central Los Angeles with his mother and father. He doesn't have any siblings or much of any friends. He seems a bit lonely. It could be because he's harboring a secret. It's perhaps clear when his mother urges him to marry a girl but he seems to have no interest. It doesn't become more clear until he's caught staring at the naked body and penis of a guy whom he shadows for college. Not wanting anyone in his tight community to know he's gay, he keeps to himself.

He does have a fascination if not outright obsession with fitness and maintaining his own body. It's not verbalized but David is taller than almost every other Korean around him. Anywhere he goes, he literally stands out or above. Yet, his exercise regimen is pretty intense and a little over-the-top. He does sit-ups, crunches and goes on constant runs. David is always concerned with how his form looks. Ahn's camera is similarly concerned, as we get many and many close-ups of David's sweaty skin and flexing muscles. It's perhaps indicative of a homosexual gaze.

Ahn has in many ways made this film about wet skin and muscles. The titular location is basically a sauna that abounds in naked men often wrapped in white towels or sometimes nothing at all. They sit and steam for relaxation or cleansing purposes. However, the movie begins with a ritual that is all about skin and physical contact. David begins by scrubbing the bare backside of his father, Jin, played by Youn Ho Cho. It seems like a more personal way of exfoliating someone.

It emphasizes how much the body is important here, as well as the importance of contact with another. It's a way of contrasting later how David lacks that physical contact with another and how he craves it because he's so deprived. David scrubbing his father is also a good way of establishing the relationship between the two, which becomes a crucial thing throughout the film.

The father-son relationship is key to the overall theme at work. Jin struggles to get a job after he and his family lose their restaurant. He struggles, often falling to alcoholism, but he struggles not only to support his family but also to provide a better life for his son. David gets a job under the table because he sees how hard his dad is working and stumbling. He feels an obligation to his father as much as his father does to him.

The ending might indicate David breaking free of that obligation or as much the obligations that come from a lot of the hetero-normative structures in play, which includes the church. The insistence of a church friend of his parents is a funny bit of business in this film.

One criticism that this movie and others demonstrate is the ignorance of social media and how young people communicate and utilize it. David is a millennial as it were and we at once see him using his smartphone. Yet, there is this ignorance to gay social media that seems odd. His interest in the sexual activity between men in the sauna feels in ignorance of things like Grindr or any hook-up website.

Not Rated but contains full-frontal nudity, sexuality and alcohol abuse.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.


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