in 'spa night', traditional korean values meet gay cruising culture

What happens when a Korean spa — a family-oriented cultural center — becomes a site for queer cruising? And what happens when you’re a young, closeted Korean-American working there? ‘Spa Night,’ a new coming of age film which screens tonight at BAM...

Jun 20 2016, 10:05pm

Public bathhouses have existed since the sixth century, and have been formative locations in forging queer identities for nearly as long. The ancient Greek tradition has been alive in New York City since the Everard Spa Turkish Bathhouse opened on 28th Street in 1888. Writers Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were among its more notable patrons. Spa cruising culture has waned since the height of the AIDS epidemic (when mayor Ed Koch raided and condemned many public health spaces, Everard included). But our fair city's Missed Connections page contains more than enough dispatches — from both the 124-year-old Russian Turkish Baths on East 10th Street and just about every Equinox — to prove that spa steam rooms are still rather steamy. On the other side of the country in Los Angeles, spa culture is similarly active. Yet many of its bathhouses are neither Russian nor Turkish, but Korean — frequented mostly by families and located in Koreatown, the city's most densely populated ethnic enclave. So when a friend recounted a particularly hot hookup he'd had at a K-town spa, queer Korean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn wasn't quite sure how to feel.

"Korean spas are a super cultural, family thing for me, so to hear that they were being used for gay hookups sounded kind of sacrilegious, but also kind of sexy," Ahn explains. "As I've grown up, it's been easy for me to separate those two sides of who I am. But suddenly, it's all in one place — and you kind of have to deal with it." This complex coexistence of identities inspired Ahn's first feature-length narrative film, Spa Night.

Ahn's coming of age drama follows David Cho, a first generation Korean-American who works at his parents' restaurant in Koreatown and is silently struggling to accept his homosexuality. When the Chos can no longer afford the restaurant's lease, they must find new jobs in order to help make ends-meet, and David is encouraged to forge his own path. A well-meaning (and well-off) church friend, Mrs. Baek, offers a waitressing job to David's mother, Soyoung, and encourages David to apply for college — setting up appointments with an SAT prep organization to raise his abysmal scores, and arranging for him to shadow her son, Eddie, at USC. Though the trip to USC doesn't do much for David's college prospects, the late night visit he pays to a 24-hour all-male spa — where he notices a help wanted sign — proves transformative; he secretly takes the job and begins to explore his nascent sexuality. 

Eventually, David's time at the spa forces him to reckon with the complex, contrasting facets of his identity as a queer Korean-American, tortured not by the fear of his parents' punishment, but reminded at each turn of their love and sacrifice. The family's collective struggle paints a rich portrait of contemporary life within an immigrant community: Ahn weaves together churches, restaurants, spas, and golf clubs (all of them real Koreatown locations) and emphasizes how each institution plays a key role in identity formation. Where many films have pursued coming of age themes through struggles with sexuality, Spa Night complicates the experience through many more rich prisms: religion, class, ethnicity, immigration.

Ahead of Spa Night's New York premiere tonight at BAMcinemaFest, we caught up with Ahn and Seo to learn more about a story rarely shown on screen. 

RELATED: Watch tattoo artist Grace Neutral explore South Korean spas in i-D's documentary series 'Beyond Beauty'

Location is such an important aspect of this film. Let's talk about its development.
Andrew Ahn: It was interesting because the script started out just in the spa. It was, like, 30 pages of all spa before I realized it was feeling too claustrophobic. So much of what I was interested in was exploring someone's Korean identity and gay identity, so I expanded the film so that Koreatown itself becomes a big part of it. Now, more and more people are hanging out in Koreatown — checking out the spas and visiting the restaurants. But what's a little sad about this upswing in K-town tourism is that it still feels like tourism; people stop by and go home. There's a higher profile, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Koreatown is really being understood. In Spa Night, you get to settle and live in the space. And I definitely wanted it to touch on other communities within communities, like Koreatown's large Hispanic population. Joe speaks Spanish fluently, so it was great to be able to do some of these scenes which felt super K-town to me. 

You filmed everything on location, too.
AA: We had to be really resourceful. Some of the spas were very curious about what we were filming, and when we told them, they were kind of iffy about it or rejected us. There's only one golf range and it's so iconically Koreatown, but we couldn't shoot there because it was so expensive, so we shot it all from the parking garage underneath the driving range. But it was also a lot of fun; we got to eat great food because we were scouting at so many restaurants. Joe has such an infectious and bubbly personality, it really helped to pass the time on set.

It's funny you say that. David is such a serious character!
Joe Seo: Yeah, David is a little bit more… reserved than me.

How did you connect with him?
JS: It was all Andrew. Of all the different directors I've worked with, Andrew is very specific. He knows the character well, so he was really exacting in what kind of emotions needed to be felt at the time. There's a lot of pain and suffering we all go through, and he knew how to bring it out.
AA: I think we have common experiences and language to draw upon; being both Korean-American and the children of immigrants, we could understand each other in a way that's really fruitful for the film. 

You can feel that emotion in the film's non-verbal; the weight of David's struggle was really palpable. I'd have exploded.
AA: What I realized as I was developing the script is that the drama and the tension that David's character feels is made worse if his parents really love him and believe in him. If they were assholes, it'd be much easier. He wants to have a relationship with his parents, he wants to love them. I think a lot about queer kids and what can make coming out really difficult isn't the fear that their parents are gonna be assholes, it's the other side of that: that they're gonna take away the love. It's that fear. That's what I wanted to emphasize in the film, because it felt more authentic than many depictions of Asian-Americans in the media as tiger parents. It made David's coming of age more difficult. 

What have some of the responses been like?
AA: People react to it differently at different festivals. In the US, there are lots of questions about identity, coming of age, intersectionality. But when I screened it in Korea at the Jeonju International Film Festival, a lot of the questions were about immigration, Korean people living in a different place. So for me, it's fun that the film can speak about different things to different audiences.

What do you hope people take from it?
AA: My biggest hope is that people understand that we balance so many different kinds of identities, whether it's queer, religious, cultural, gender expression. There are many things we all balance and that can be a struggle, but we're all trying to live a life where we feel whole. And the idea that people are these different parts, these intersections, isn't always talked about, especially in this community. 

More information on and tickets to 'Spa Night' at BAMcinemaFest here.


Text Emily Manning
Stills from Spa Night