Reviewed May 19, 2017
On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.
David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.
David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.
The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.
I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.
Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.
Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.