In the neon light of the Korean spa, longing bodies and stolen glances speak the seductive language of cruising. A man disappears up a flight of stairs, extending an unspoken invitation; another reaches out and has his hand slapped away, rebuffed for crossing some invisible line. For David (Joe Seo), the doubtful protagonist of Spa Night, these encounters are an introduction to the bathhouse’s kinesthetic vernacular, but for writer-director Andrew Ahn, such exchanges also reflect forms of being and becoming that occur outside its walls. As David, the son of Korean immigrants, navigates his nascent desire, the film rests not on eroticism per se, but on the connective tissue it weaves among sexual and other identities: Spa Night recombines elements of the emigrant saga and the coming-of-age story into a searching, fresh-faced portrait, highlighting in the process the genres’ keen correspondences.
Though each dalliance in the spa’s dim corners marks the advance of David’s arc, the film’s structure, shifting between darkness and daylight, ardor and restraint, plots his choices on two distinct axes. After he spends a soused night with a childhood friend (Tae Song), for instance, fending off accusations that he’s eyeing the guy’s dick, David decides for the first time to act on his attraction, watching the spa’s amorous patrons before masturbating in a bathroom stall. Later, when his father, Jin (Youn Ho Cho), brings up the closure of the family restaurant, David flushes with shame—and then proceeds, the next time he returns to the spa, to scare away a quartet of men he finds fooling around in the shadows.
Ahn’s insight is to acknowledge that sex is often an expression of emotions for which the words “love” and “lust” are insufficient, and that these feelings, in degree and in kind, are subject to circumstances that transcend one’s partners, or oneself. “You are supposed to be better than that,” Jin says, assuming the blame for his son’s meager career prospects. “I’m not,” David replies, and he’s not referring to his SAT scores. His self-censure stems from his secret. Of course, what both men dread most is disappointing the other, not to mention David’s mother, Soyoung (Haerry Kim), and it’s here that Spa Night winds its two central threads into a Gordian knot of expectations: Both Jin, in pursuit of the American dream, and David, in recognition of his parents’ sacrifice, fail to live up to an impossible “ideal.” For the father, it’s success. For the son, it’s straightness. But neither sees past his own sense of defeat long enough to understand the other’s, and it’s this isolation, more than any specific shortcoming, that seems to cause the men so much pain.
Tradition and heritage are factors, to be sure: David’s parents encourage him to marry a Korean woman, and Jin dissolves into great, gulping sobs when he considers his own mother and father, buried on separate continents. Ahn admirably refuses to pit “conservative” against “progressive” cultures though; after all, the protagonist’s American-born, college-aged peers, dabbling in homoeroticism, but policing his gaze, are not immune to heteronormative inclinations. Rather, as David finds himself again and again on unexplored sexual terrain, Spa Night illustrates certain symmetries between his parents’ experience and his own. At home and at the spa, he’s a stranger in a strange land, a man without a country.
That Ahn implies the parallel, yet resists belaboring it, is a function of the film’s careful construction, always holding fulfillment at arm’s length. Spa Night can be tender, even plaintive, yet its most forceful mode is that of control, maintained and momentarily relinquished. As the camera follows David’s fingertips over the muscles of his arms and abs, or closes in on his heaving chest, his Adam’s apple, his lips pressed against another man’s back, the film recreates the intense shiver of sex, its fearful power—to loosen the knot of expectations, to ease the pain. The film’s abrupt, ambiguous conclusion leaves David’s fate, and that of his parents, open to interpretation, but one hopes our last sight of him is telling. After pausing at an intersection to catch his breath, he sets off running. At least he’s moving forward.