In case you thought being gay was all dance clubs, new slang, hot fashion, easy sex, sassy pride and It-Gets-Better cheerleading, Andrew Ahn's Spa Night ignores all that. Neither is Spa Night about a drag competition at Face to Face, Equinox, or Elizabeth Arden's. It concerns David Cho (Joe Seo), the 18-year-old son of Korean immigrants who hides his gay feelings from his parents, the outside world and even, at times, from himself.
A movie about the psychological closet may be unfashionable, but Spa Night helps to better understand the depths of gay identity. David looks sensitive and brainy (like an Asian version of Miles Teller in Whiplash) yet he isn't particularly smart, has trouble with his SAT exam to get into the University of Southern California and is devoted to his role as a dutiful son. David helps out his parents' failing restaurant and later aids his father's itinerant work-hustle. When not joining his parents at a local family spa--a continuation of Old World customs, in Los Angeles' Koreatown--David's constantly exercising or jogging to release his hormones. When alone, David checks out male nudes on his cell phone. He's selfless to the point of self-denial.
Although focusing on how David's deprives himself, Ahn's filmmaking is impressively sensual. The widescreen images feature graphic color planes, shots that stress the physical positions of bodies and an emphasis on skin color and texture. Ahn knows David as intimately as he might know himself--and this includes the rarely admitted truth of young men who struggle to accept their own sexuality as well as their own morality. David's attendance at the local Korean-Catholic church is both a foundation of his ethnic identity as well as his scruples. (Sharing a dorm room with a passive-aggressive family friend leads to the most sexless man-on-man kiss in the history of Spin-the-Bottle.)
There's enormous tension when David observes the male spa customers--especially the furtive gay cruising and steam-room hook-ups. When he gives-in, it isn't the film's highpoint because Ahn refuses easy gender politics. Ahn's climax shows David's misery--agony akin to a desperate masturbatory orgasm--when he penitently scrubs his own torso raw. This cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness pantomime illustrates what David misunderstands about his own physical and spiritual circumstance.
David's condition is not one that pro-gay Korean stand-up comic Margaret Cho would joke about. Ahn asserts his integrity in the way Spa Night avoids gay political correctness. Closer insight into David's grasp of his parents' marriage may have let Ahn show how even heterosexual male role models can affect a gay youth's behavior. Instead, Ahn explores gay heartache--without romanticism, even without the sexual ambiguity of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang's masterful films about ablutions and orgasm such as the 1997 The River that features an incestuous father-son sexual encounter in a bathhouse.
What Ahn must have learned from Liang about the inner torment that generations of men have in common can be seen from David's compassion for his father's sense of social failure in light of traditional working-class life in his Korean-American community. Delving into ethnic and personal obligation distinguishes Ahn's movie from a truly closeted male-identity film like Whiplash. Ahn is sensitive to David's crisis without judging it and that makes Spa Night a gay movie rarity.
Spa Night is playing at New York's Metrograph Cinema August 19-25 then nationwide.