Sunday, September 4, 2016

Andrew Ahn | Spa Night

locked up in family love
by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Ahn (writer and director) Spa Night / 2016
Andrew Ahn’s dark coming out film begins with a family crisis, the small Los Angeles Koreatown restaurant they run, with only a few customers, is taken away from the mother, teenage son, and father, who have worked there together for several years, because of Jin’s (the father) inability to pay the rent. With little money left, the mother Soyoung (Haerry Kim) is forced to work as a waitress in a more successful restaurant owned by a church friend, while the father and son attempt to find day jobs, without much success. Although Jin applies for other jobs, his age and bad health work against him. 

What is even worse for the family is that, without money, they find the American Dream they had planned for their son, is almost out of reach. David (Joe Seo), moreover, is a middling student and does not have the SAT scores to get into the favored educational facility for such families, University of Southern California. The family can hardly even pay for the tutoring necessary to increase his scores so that he might get a fellowship for his necessary education. And when he does begin his lessons, he makes little improvement in his test scores. For David is, as one might say, extremely distracted, beginning to realize—living within a community where such a thing is unthinkable and even more importantly, unspeakable—that he is gay.

     There is no place, clearly, for him to turn to help make the difficult transition. His parents link him up with a slightly older USC student who has also known him from church—that successful restaurant owner’s son—encouraging David to spend a day on campus in their hopes that he will become more interested in the prospect. But his campus visit only confuses the young David even more, as his former “friend” apparently dorms with a young man who spends most of his nights at his boyfriend’s and the tutoring elder student spends most of his nights drinking and partying with girls.
     They all, including David, get so drunk that the males determine to visit one of the many local spas that dot the Koreatown landscape—places, as David remembers them, of close father-son bonding, as we see early on, when the two rub each other’s backs in a kind of cleansing process after their sweat in the spa.

       While visiting with the others, David has spotted a “help wanted sign,” and so goes to work, unbeknownst to his family, to bring in a little extra income. But as he gathers towels, mops down floors and, after work, joins others in the over-heated rooms and showers, he perceives another series of activities also at work in the spas, a world of secretive gay love. For the most part, he observes these erotic couplings—as if almost out of the corners of his eyes—with simple desire. And much of the film, accordingly, seems more voyeuristic than revelatory. But gradually, he too, joins in with more direct stares, an occasional touch of an older man, and dares to go even a further—while still engaging in nothing too obvious or salacious.
      He is, after all, aware of an occasional arrest when a gay man mistakenly encounters a heterosexual customer, and he has been told by the spa owner to report any “unusual goings-on.”
       The tension of this film is that every member of this family is a loving being, caring and meaning well for each other. Yet in that embrace of family love, everyone is also delimiting and gradually choking one another. Soyoung is exhausted from her long hours and hurt, surely, by her former friend’s orders that she dress better. Without a job, Jin, like his father before him, turns to alcohol and increasingly falls into a drunken stupor each night. David, locked up in his parent’s dream for him and his own whirl of inexpressible sexual feelings, is represented again and again in this often slow-moving film, as almost torturing himself, exercising beyond endurance in endless sit-ups and long street-runs. Like the deep rubs between father and son in the spa, he can be seen in many sequences as clearly trying to rub out his own existence.
       When Jin returns late one night drunk and fights with Soyoung, she angrily reacts, forcing the now-completely defeated man to admit his failure in life. He leaves the house, with Soyoung gently asking that her son follow him to make sure he doesn’t attempt to drive.
      After a long prowl in the late-night Koreatown streets, David, following in his father’s staggering footsteps, finally takes him to the well-known spa, this time paying for their entry, where he puts his father into a chair to let him sleep off his drunkenness. David, meanwhile, undresses and enters the spa, this time encountering a handsome young man with whom he finally consummates, in no uncertain terms, his desires. Yet as the couple finishes their love-making, the spa owner enters to observe what has just happened, and David realizes the consequences. Collecting his now more sober father, he drops his locker keys off at the desk, attempting to apologize for his actions—which the spa-owner meets with a stony silence.
        As David goes for yet another long run through the vibrant Koreatown streets, the screen goes black.
        In short, this painfully moving first film offers absolutely no solutions to the problems its characters face. It simply shows the situation, the near impossibility of coming to terms with such issues within a society that refuses to speak of the problems here reiterated. All we can hope, as the director has said in a newspaper interview in the Los Angeles Times, is that this film can serve as an opening of that now-closed conversation. If nothing else, this movie reveals that all cultural and social communities share the same problems and fears, even if some would rather pretend they do not exist.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2016

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