Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2016 5:46 am 
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JOE SEO IN SPA NIGHT

Imploding sexuality in Koreatown, L.A.

Andrew Ahn's Spa Night focuses on an 18-year-old Korean American trying to please his struggling immigrant parents while finding his own tentative way to his gay identity in Los Angeles' sprawling Koreatown through its steamy local spa scene. It seems this debut feature and a previous short Dol (about a traditional ceremony for one-year-old boys) are Brown and CalArts graduate Ahn's own way of coming out to his family too: this may explain why the film moves with such powerful restraint. Its hushed representation of family piety and pain are so subtly reminiscent of Ozu they can make you weep. The emerging picture of a boy moving between several different American worlds is exceptionally knowing and real.

The story and the film begin with monolithic cultural unity, and are correspondingly tightly wound and seamlessly edited. In the opening scene, photographed with intense sensuality by dp Ki Jin Kim, David (Joe Seo) is with his mother Soyoung (Haerry Kim) and father Jin (Youn Ho Cho) in a Koreatown steam bath, a shared ritual of unwinding after a hard week at the little family restaurant where David enjoys working. They speak Korean among themselves. But David can speak Spanish to a delivery man and also speaks up-to-date colloquial American English when later sent to visit Eddie (Tae Song), a boisterous childhood friend who's now an undergraduate at USC. The campus visit is arranged by Soyoung with Eddie's mother, Mrs. Baek (Linda Han), known from church, another place where the family goes together, because his parents want David to go to college and get a taste of it.

The tipping point comes when financial woes force Jin to close the family eatery and he and David have to scrounge for odd jobs while Soyoung starts working full time as a waitress at Mrs. Baek's successful restaurant. With more free time, pressure is on David to pursue his SAT's in a costly prep course they can ill afford so he can enter USC - and move on up, above the immigrant level, to the life his father has so long dreamed of. David hardly knows what he wants, or cannot put it into words. Everything he says is to please his parents. Now, the family is broken up in the daytime, and Jin starts drinking more and more.

David is seen running or working out at home every chance he gets. His nude selfies shot in the bathroom mirror, sometimes full frontal, show how he's cultivating the abs and pecs to make himself as attractive as the men he furtively eyes. His overnighter with Eddie reveals the extent of his inexperience. He's shocked by a "gay kiss" drinking game during the flirty co-ed evening, the vulgar karaoke, and the extent of the drinking, which he can't handle. Eddie meanwhile is astonished to learn shy, impecunious David has never been to a gym. The intense evening with girls ends up with the group divided up into two different Korean same-sex steam baths, and at the all-male one, David finds there's a job opening. Later he gets a job there. His new mentor, the spa manager (Ho Young Chung) pays him in cash with no benefits while allowing him to use the facilities freely in his spare time. David's part-time work in this location becomes a tentative, shadowy chance to explore his closeted gayness, because stuff goes on here that he may not have been fully aware of before.

David pretends to his parents to be doing well at the SAT-prep while knowing and being told by the Korean course recruiter that he can't get into USC with his scores, and not caring. The life of a humble working stiff and dutiful son suits him, except that his hormones put the latter goal out of reach and his furtive life at the spa, which he keeps from his parents, becomes his main preoccupation.

But Spa Night , which is low-keyed and without a musical score and mostly in Korean, moves imperceptibly from scene to scene, quietly adding pieces to the mosaic of second-generation Korean-American life where David's coming-of-age plays out. His mom shows him the little "pink apartment" where she and Jin lived when they first came to America, full of hope, and she explains they'd wanted to provide him with a sister but couldn't afford it. Continuing Willy Loman-like pretenses that all is well, Jin and his fragile status crumble.

As the challenged parents, Youn Ho Cho and Haerry Kim are convincing and real, but Joe Seo impresses the most with a performance as the dutiful, repressed David that's a marvel of controlled understatement. There's fine a irony and neat construction in how the steam baths of Koreatown, which has become a hip place for outside revelers, are the locus for both David's greatest physical togetherness with his tight-knit (but now unraveling) family and for the secret exploration of his hitherto repressed sexuality.

Spa Night presents conflict, not resolution, and fizzles somewhat toward the end. Critics (and both Boyd van Hoeij in Hollywood Reporter and Peter Debruge in Variety have favorably reviewed the film) estimate that its low keyed style will limit its audience. Maybe. But Andrew Ahn and Joe Seo both hail from Koreatown themselves and know whereof they speak. The issues and personalities the film presents seem both intimately known and artistically expressed.

After debuting at Sundance January 2016 (Special Jury Prize) and winning awards at a number of festivals (Grand Jury Prize at Outfest), Strand Releasing opens Spa Night (93 mins.) in New York 19 Aug. at the Metrograph and in Los Angeles 26 Aug. at the Sundance Cinemas.

Interview with Andrew Ahn from npr's KQED Public Radio.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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