Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT: problems with family and sexuality in L. A.'s Koreatown

So far as TrustMovies can remember, we haven't had all that many films that dealt with Korean culture in Los Angeles -- which makes SPA NIGHT, the first full-length features from Andrew Ahn, something of a novelty. And this writer/ director's way with Korean-American culture and tradition results in a movie that, though it goes only a step or two toward any of the goals pursued or hoped for by its three-member family of leading characters, still manages to hold -- via its specificity and fluidity -- our interest and caring.

The leading character here is a young man just about to enter college -- maybe USC, if he can get his SAT score a good deal higher -- and very much part of a tight-knit family that owns a little restaurant at which all three of them work. Mr. Ahn, shown at left, appears to know Los Angeles Koreatown culture, as well as Korean-American traditions quite well, and he also knows how to steep his movie in these and let us understand their effects upon this very working-class trio without undue pushing. We're immediately made part of the work, home and religious life of the family, while the filmmaker's gaze quickly comes to rest on the son.

That son, David, played by Joe Seo (on poster, top, and above and below) with a quiet control that is slowly being pierced by his family's expectations, as well as his own sexual needs, is unsure of his proper place in life. Mom and Dad expect him to go to college, but then a sudden downturn in the family's fortunes changes everything. Dad has known about this for some time, but he lies by omission, as does mom, in more outright fashion, in order to save face -- another time-honored Asian (and for that matter, western) tradition.

Via various plot devices -- all of them realistic and believable rather than merely coincidental -- David spends a day and night with the son of a wealthier family who has been prodded to take David around with him to school classes and elsewhere. After some heavy drinking and (of course) a Karaoke bar, the girls and guys go to a spa -- a Korean pleasure -- for a little relaxation and cleaning up. But, hey, it's men only here, so the gals will have to use the one across the street.

This spa experience changes so much, yet what is shown us proves so quiet and measured that only slowly does David come to sense and then experience these changes. The "help wanted" sign he notices in the spa registers strongly enough that soon, our boy is working there, around naked male bodies that he surreptitiously admires -- as some of the men do him. And not so surreptitiously.

The movie tracks the change in David's responses to all this, as well as how his parents are changing, too. Mom works for that wealthy woman whose son showed David around school and town, while Dad, sometimes with David in tow, takes whatever odd jobs he can find, as he simultaneously begins to drink more and more. (The scene in which David, helping Dad with a "moving" job, finds himself in the home of a much wealthier family is sad and telling.)

The route from teenager to young adult is always fraught, but being sexually "different," as well as economically strapped, makes it darker and harder. By the quiet close of the film, all three family members seem further set on their course ahead, for good or bad. We might might want a tad more movement and story than we get here, though David's at least beginning to come to terms with his sexuality, and with his parents and their problems, make us understand that his life from now on will certainly be different from what it was before.

Spa Night -- from Strand Releasing, in both English and Korean-with-English-subtitles, and running 97 minutes -- opens this Friday, August 19, in New York City, exclusively at the new Metrograph theater. On the following Friday, August 26, the film opens in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset 5, after which a limited nationwide release is expected. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here, then click Screenings on the task bar halfway down the page.

No comments: