What comes to mind when you think of the spa? Luxury, relaxation, cleansing, discomfort, family, sex, adventure, the Korean death scrub? And while we're at it, is the spa a gay thing, a Korean thing, or a Korean American thing? For Andrew Ahn, the director of Spa Night, it is all of the things, all at the same time. It's a place where the main character, David Cho, bonds with his family, keeps his parents safe, and explores his sexuality.
I sat with Andrew Ahn to chat about Koreatown, queerness, and the pitfalls of authenticity. The interview has been edited for clarity. [Warning! This interview is full of spoilers.]
Lê: Your depiction of Koreatown strays from typical portrayals of the neighborhood as a playground only for consumption. Even though trendy things about K-Town, like the 24-hour night life, restaurants, and Korean spas, are central to the film, the neighborhood doesn't feel so commodified.
Ahn: L.A. is a city that's used in film a lot, but there's not a lot of representations of Koreatown. Even though it's geographically in the center of the city and people drive through it all the time, and there was this desire for me to stop people and to give context to the signs and businesses that they just go by. There's also an element of me reacting to how Koreatown has become more and more trendy. I wanted to ground this family and their story in this space in Koreatown to combat a sense of neighborhood tourism and show a story that felt very situated here. The drama and the tone is dictated by the streets and businesses and families that are here.
In some ways I feel like I avoided a lot of pitfalls by focusing on the people as much as possible, even through the way that it was shot. The exterior is where David is running through Koreatown, for example. We were careful not to use a lot of shots that were like, "look at all these exotic signs!" It was always about him running through the city, keeping him centered in the place. Keeping him as my focus, I was able to steer clear from talking about superficial trends and food and nightlife experiences.
Humanizing Koreatown and knowing there aren't many gay Asian American narratives... Did you feel a burden of representation taking on this project? In the same vein, did you encounter some of the pitfalls of "following the rules" of authenticity?
I felt that burden, but at the same time, I knew that my goal was to tell one perspective and to tell that perspective so specifically that it couldn't be seen as the end-all-be-all of being queer Asian American. Unfortunately at the same time, I had to use the fact that there wasn't a lot of representation out there to drum up interest and convince people that this was a meaningful project. In some ways I was trying to draw attention to that, and also downplay it. It was a funny thing to navigate.
It's funny having made a film that deals with these overlapping identities and communities that people are very curious about. They're curious about me, so they conflate David's experience with my own. I find myself with this film, and having a difficult time situating it still.
Promotion is different from writing too.
That's a really fascinating thing -- depending on the phase of the project, the kind of narrative shifts and transforms. One of my favorite Q&As was my New York premiere. It so happened that the audience was predominately young Asian Americans, and a lot of questions were coming from queer Asian Americans, and different subjects came up that I had never had to talk about but I realized in that moment were super important to me and part of the work.
One person asked this question about "gay perfection" and that a lot of young people feel like they have to be perfect or achieve a certain amount of success as a justification for being gay, to make it better. I realize that's kind of what I've done in my life -- I was a good student, and even in my filmmaking, I'm like this. I thought, "I have to make this film so I can get into a great festival because that's the only way it's gonna be worth it."
It's interesting that David's grappling with success and sexuality as he lives with his parents, but it's not a coming out film.
When I did the Kickstarter, I called it a "coming out" film, but even then I knew that he wasn't going to come out to his parents, that it was an interior shift where he would come out to himself. Then as we edited the film, it became less focused on his coming out journey and more about his relationship to his parents. It became a family story. I was pleasantly surprised to see that coming through. I always knew that that was the heart of the story. It's the most uncomplicated aspect of the story. This is a family that cares for each other. In some ways, it's that care that causes some of the tension and the difficulty and the sadness. This idea of it being a coming out film -- my hope is that these other themes give it a more layered viewing experience.
People may expect a lot from the trailer and the plot descriptions— that you would be saying a lot of things about being gay or Korean. There's so much silence, though, and the silence encompasses the assumptions and the refusals. All of the important scenes involve so much silence. Like the scrubbing and running scenes that bookmark the film, those are scenes almost completely without dialogue.
I've never thought about the role of silence. That's an interesting point. I remember writing the screenplay and the very first draft was 30 pages. It was very short. Generally the rule is a page a minute, a feature length film is 90 pages.
Being on set, shooting those scenes, they felt like meaty scenes; they took as long as any dialogue scene did. We had to make sure we could push the narrative forward, that we got character moments, that we understood the emotionality of the characters in these moments. There's not a lot of dialogue in the movie but there's a lot of action. The narrative can hold multiple things.
It is a gay story, and it is not a gay story.
One thing I think about a lot is about him and the job and why he has that job. I remember in the writing process, people would ask, "Does he take the job? Does he stay because he wants to make money for his family, or because he wants to explore his sexuality?" And for me it's both. The film is about these intersections and multiple motives and identities. By definition, the film has to be a little slippery and hard to pin down.
Like K-Spa! [Lê literally says "har har." Ahn laughs politely.] Yeah, David is a slippery character, too. He is able to slip through cracks. He's not outed by friends or family. The K-Spa becomes a queer space that totally isn't at the same time, and David is able to "slip" into this space and explore all the things that he is and wants to be. It also seems like other characters projected onto David's silence. Like, the girls at the USC party thought he must be shy, or the USC friend projects bro-ness on David until he realizes something is up.
The silence of the character allows him to slip into these spaces and entrench himself in these worlds without drawing too much attention to himself, not just in the spa, but also in scenes like the USC sequence. For a little while, he can fake being a bro-y Asian frat boy. There's something about him being quiet that allows him to observe and also gives him a sense of safety. [And when he leaves his job at the spa], his only way out of that is to stay quiet and leave the situation.
Can you speak more about the scrubbing scenes? So much of David's experience before that moment is his trying to avoid pain. In the final scrubbing scene this all changes.
I never wanted the film to lose sight of the kind of main purpose of the spa experience, which is to clean yourself. I needed to show it at the beginning and show it at the end. Otherwise, people might assume that the spa is where you're supposed to have sex. I always wanted to go back to this idea of its original utilization. In many ways I wanted this emotional moment at the end of the film to still be grounded in some kind of Korean cultural ritual. Even though the scene shows a burst of emotion at this point in his life, that the action comes from this thing that he's done his whole life. I also was very cautious about the end scrubbing scene because it can be seen as David trying to clean himself of shame, but in my directing of Joe in that scene, a lot of that for me was about finding your new identity, finding a fresh start.
At the beginning it seems like his fitness routine disconnects from his mind from of the stress of his life. At the end, when he's running, it looks more painful. It also made me think that he's running toward something rather than away.
What I love about that end sequence is that he's running toward something but we also don't know what that is. We're not allowed to know.
We don't get access to his future. We don't know if "it gets better." Speaking of more mainstream "coming out" narratives, it didn't seem like David's coming out to his parents was even a question. He seemed so integral to the balance of the fragile family situation, that something like that would tip everything over, and the parents were not interested in entertaining that thought.
I just wasn't interested in [pursuing this type of narrative.] So much emphasis is placed on verbalizing to other people that you're queer. For me, the harder thing is to accept it yourself. The internal process. When I was able to come out to myself and call myself a gay man, I knew I was eventually going to come out to people. It felt like a foregone conclusion. The more dramatic and more difficult part was getting up to that point.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about your film, that you haven't had the opportunity to talk about before?
In our initial conversation, you asked about how people essentialize the Korean experience. I've been thinking more about that. I've been more observant of as I've been talking to people about the film and they have this idea that the drama of the film is indicative of Korean culture. This is not my goal at all. In fact, I think that some of the things that happen in the film are very different from what a stereotypical Korean family would do. Even thinking about David and college and education, it's a little delayed. His parents weren't on his case in high school; it was after the fact.
Yeah, David only went to those prep courses because his parents' business failed. People often see Korean Americans as well-to-do, upper-middle class, business people. In Spa Night, we not only see a different K-Town, but also a different view of a Korean American family.
For me, to have people say that this film is so indicative of Korean culture, it's like ... ugh, it's kind of not. It's a little aberrant from that. For me, what this has implications for, is this idea of authorship. I wonder if the script was written by someone who wasn't Korean, would there be a certain amount of this writer having to see what Korean things are, and have to stick to them because that's all they know? And because I'm Korean I'm allowed to break the rules, because I'm in this community? It's been interesting.
Spa Night opens in San Francisco's Roxie Theater on September 30.