Spa Night is a fascinating, albeit slight, glimpse into one young man’s journey through sexuality, immigrant identity, and life on the margins of the American Dream. In his feature debut, writer-director Andrew Ahn brings this story into focus with a rich and strikingly specific depiction of his hometown, the Koreatown district in Los Angeles.
Spa Night centers around David, a shy, closeted first-generation Korean-American immigrant with too much on his plate. His parents’ modest Koreatown restaurant shuts down, leaving the already struggling immigrant family in even worse financial straits. He constantly fights through the fear that he will never live up to the sacrifices of his parents, lacking the drive to focus on the SATs or the desire to settle down with a family and a nice Korean wife. He seems to have no real friends, or anyone with whom he can speak openly about his struggles. College might offer David more career opportunities and an accepting gay community, but he remains unwilling or incapable of leaving the confines of his Koreatown neighborhood in Spa Night.
Instead, David chooses to pass his time in the steamy 24-hour sauna, which gives the film its title. Here, David takes on a janitorial job, both to sneak some extra money into his parents’ empty wallets, and to hesitantly explore his growing attraction to men underneath the atmospheric shadows of the sauna’s gay cruising scene. This space provides Ahn with the opportunity to make its most fascinating points about identity. In Spa Night, the titular sauna represents a liminal space in its protagonist’s identity--between its functions as a common ritual in many Korean-American communities, and as a sort of pre-Internet hookup site for closeted gay men of all races, ages, and body types.
The best moments in Spa Night apply this sort of cultural specificity to the examination of Korean-American social rituals and the ways in which our marginalized protagonist and his family fall short of them. The Korean-American church, in particular, plays an outsized role in defining the heteronormative, patriarchal, upwardly mobile ideal that informs every aspect of the family’s life. Ahn also renders a wide swatch of Koreatown life--karaoke bars, Korean moving trucks, dol celebrations — against which we see just how lonely and alienated someone like Daniel must be.
Spa Night doesn’t quite probe into these complex issues with enough force to make for a truly transcendent film, but Ahn’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail make it a promising debut.