At the spa, you're not talking, and you're completely naked. I feel the most Korean that I ever feel, because it's my naked Korean body, in this Korean space.”
Moving away from the whitewashed casting controversy of the Ghost in the Shell remake and its calls to replace Scarlett Johansson with an Asian actor, I’ve concluded that there is no need for an Asian-American cyborg, because we already have plenty. In interviews, Scarlett Johansson has described her character, The Major, as someone who is “removed from her sexuality,” “not living a human [or] robotic existence,” and “has no heart.” This list of traits also functions as a list of the three defining stereotypes of Asian-Americans in cinema. They kiss and undress, but never cross the lines or make a mess. They go through the motions of living but never experience joy, ecstasy, or devastation. Like cyborgs, they are human on the outside, but on the inside not quite, not enough.
As he stares at his naked body in the bathroom mirror, David (Joe Seo), the teen protagonist of Andrew Ahn’s 2016 film Spa Night, is filled with curiosity and intrigue. Cellphone in hand, hetakes several pictures of his reflection as if to preserve a sight he himself is seeing for the first time. But there is no one on the receiving end, implying that David’s delight at his toned muscles is purely out of his own fascination. David’s naked body remains a secret for most of Spa Night’s duration until he begins to explore his sexuality at the local Korean spa, where nakedness is not a source of shame but a given.
The film, which won awards at Sundance, Outfest and the Nashville Film Festival, and was nominated for multiple Independent Spirit Awards, still remains on the outer circle of this year’s conversation surrounding representation. However, beyond simply visibility, Spa Night imagines a universe in which Asian-Americans are not only what lies on the surface but all that is inside. Now available on Netflix and iTunes, Spa Night follows David’s many firsts, from his coming out—a silent affair—to his coming-of-age and acceptance of himself as a human being, as someone with a heart.
For many Koreans, the spa is associated with the full days dedicated to taking the entire family to the spa to rid themselves of dead skin and dirt. For Korean-Americans, the spa is one of few uniquely “Korean spaces” that imports a piece of the homeland abroad, preserved in time and space. Divided into “men” and “women” bathhouses, the spa also opens up potential for the “homosocial” to become the “homoerotic,” as it dually acts as a hookup spot for gay men. For Ahn, whose previous short films Andy (2010) and Dol (2011) also wrestle with the co-existence of Korean-American and queer identities, the spa symbolizes the intersection between the two worlds, while allowing for the openness granted by the natural nakedness warranted by the space, an openness between family, friends, and part-time, one-night lovers. For these reasons, David finds himself drawn to the spa again and again as a place of refuge.
The spa is where, in the film’s opening sequence, David and his father scrub each other’s backs, and where David is unable to keep himself from staring at his childhood friend Eddie (Tae Song), the all-star son of his mother’s friend, who already has a girlfriend. When his parents, Soyoung (Haerry Kim) and Jin (Youn-ho Cho), lose their restaurant, David intuitively heads to the only place he knows with a job opening, perhaps the only space where he really belongs. And when he eventually succumbs to his urge to join and hook up with the cruisers who gather in the spa every night, he also expresses a long-withheld desire for intimacy.
It is this curious—but not timid—desire that propels the film past the clichés of exotic memorabilia and self-conscious didacticism and into a higher dimension of complexity, precisely because we see and feel through David’s eyes, and the sensations running through his body. In his eyes, the streets of Koreatown through which he jogs every morning are nothing new. The Korean spa, where he and his family eat and joke and bathe together, is also typical, though foreign to most others. These superficial markers, like items on an ethnic narrative checklist, go unchecked. Little explanation is given regarding the spa and its rules, and most of the dialogue is in Korean. Instead, the film delves beneath the skin and into the flesh of David’s character in search of an alternate means to communicate his humanity to the viewer.
Newness is found in the granular details of David’s world, and these details are magnified through his—and the camera’s—careful fixation. There is the suddenly daunting, and expensive, idea of college, the disintegrating self-esteem of David’s unemployed father, the exhaustion of his lone breadwinner mother, and his newly awakened sense of over-responsibility to the family. Though actor Joe Seo (winner of the Special Jury prize for lead actor in the U.S. dramatic category at Sundance) plays David as a boy of few words, his wide eyes and flushed cheeks, paired with the film’s long shots, speak to the way David pushes his anxiety out of sight and out of mind, as if to even ponder his emotions would give way to a melancholy that will overpower him and, even worse, inconvenience his family even more than the already burdensome cost of his existence.
Though many have criticized the film’s seeming vagueness and slow-paced dialogue, David’s inability to fully express himself demonstrates a stifling feeling many second-generation immigrants know well, as well as a parallel with the silent language shared between the nameless cruisers in the spa, who only speak through body language and stares from across the room. As the spa has banned “inappropriate activity,” the men must hook up in hiding. David quickly catches on, softly murmuring to whoever is sitting next to him in the hot room and waiting for their cue. The details of the men’s bodies are most important to David as a young man encountering overt gay sexuality for, presumably, one of the first times. As a result, the sexual encounters depicted in the film are presented through a varying range of close-ups in deep blues and oranges with brown undertones, long shots of bodies covered in towels and surrounded by mist.
Though beautiful at the time, such moments end on a note of sadness when interrupted by the outside world, signified by the spa owner who kicks out several men and instructs David to do the same. Throughout the film, this reality—of a world unforgiving of intersections, of certain bodies, certain rules broken—continues to intervene in David’s search for selfhood. Sometimes these instances are subtle, like when his mother asks if he is interested in any Korean girls, and sometimes they’re much more blatant, such as when a friend of David’s childhood crush Edward calls him a “penis looker.” There are also the unforeseen disruptions of poverty and strained family ties that convince David that selfhood is not a priority, that he and his wants and needs are not important.
Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Spa Night is not, in the traditional sense, a coming-out film. There are no overt claims to gayness on David’s part, no suspicions on his family’s part, and none of the self-punishment and self-sabotage found in many films of the same subject take place. Though there are sexual partners, they don’t bother to ask for a name or a story. But within the walls of the spa, David does come out, albeit to only himself.
After a hookup with another Korean man results in the two getting caught by the spa owner, David leaves to the bathhouse where, finally overcome by the same sadness he’d tried to contain, he begins to sob in anguish. Repeatedly, he scrubs against his stomach with a coarse sponge until spots of blood appear on his pink skin. This is not mere self-harm or self-hatred, though it is very much a bit of both. More importantly, the scene elevates David’s body as a site for articulating the feelings he does not permit himself to fully express. In doing so, the repeated scrubs become increasingly cathartic as David finally comes to term with—without condoning or embracing—the pain warranted by who he cannot help but be. At the same time, for David to express this pain, to bleed onscreen, forces the viewer to accept the Asian-American body for what it is and what it is not.
The gracefulness of Spa Night is reminiscent of the filmography of South Korean auteur and novelist Lee Chang-dong, whose characters —including the elderly, disabled, working class, and single parents—typically exist on the outskirts of Korean society. Lee’s most recent films, Secret Sunshine and Poetry, embody Ahn’s focus on unspoken revelations, walks through town, and nights spent alone as moments of solace for society’s outcasts. Though oceans apart, Spa Night also ventures through the path paved by the New Korean Cinema movement, of which Lee was at the forefront. Spanning from the eighties to the mid-2000’s, New Korean Cinema shifted away from addressing collective memory and towards dissecting “subjectivities and consciousness” as manifestations of the former. Through the lens of New Korean Cinema, each individual action stemmed from the repression of dissatisfaction and disillusionment triggered by a history of destabilization.
Likewise, Spa Night runs its hands through the fabric of David’s individual subjectivity, feeling the intricacies of each thread. Though there is much to be said about queer Korean identity such as the role of patriarchal Christianity and Confucianism, the emasculation caused by the Korean War, rapid industrialization’s displacement of Korean-American immigrants forced abroad by unemployment, such discourse is nowhere to be found in Spa Night. Instead, the film locates its aching heart up close, in mirrors, and through windows, finding the abstractions of history, politics, and sexuality in the tiny seams where David’s many selves meet.
1. Jean Ho, “Spa Hookups, Korean Parents, And Coming Out On Screen: Q&A With Filmmaker Andrew Ahn,” 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/10/06/440549964/spa-hookups-korean-parents-and-coming-out-on-screen-q-a-with-filmmaker-andrew-ah
2. Steve Weintraub, “Ghost in the Shell: Star Scarlett Johansson on Bringing the Iconic Character to Life,” 2016, http://collider.com/scarlett-johansson-ghost-in-the-shell-interview/
3. Crystal Bell, “Scarlett Johansson on Ghost in the Shell and The Challenge of Playing a Cyborg,” 2016, http://www.mtv.com/news/2959475/scarlett-johansson-ghost-in-the-shell-interview/
4. J. Ho, op. cit.
5. Kyung Hyun Kim, “New Korean Cinema Auteurs,” in Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Duke University Press , 2004, p131-135. 5p.