Andrew Ahn’s first full-length film, Spa Night (2016), which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2016, tells the story of a sexually-unsure, twenty-year-old Korean-American, David Cho (Joe Seo), who takes on a part-time job at a Korean spa to help his family's financial issues immediately after the abrupt shuttering of his family's tofu restaurant. Soon after he starts, he discovers an underground world of gay sex that both scares and excites him. Los Angeles' Korean spas serve as both a meeting place for new connections and a bridge between past and future for a generation of immigrant families. Spa Night explores one Korean-American family's dreams and realities as its individuals struggle with the overlap of personal desire, disillusionment and sense of tradition.
The day after the Sundance premiere, ScreenPrism sat down with Director Andrew Ahn, Seo – who won Sundance's US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance – and Haerry Kim, who plays David’s mother, Soyoung. At the Q&A after the premiere, it was clear that Seo's and Kim's natural and organic intimacy existed off-screen, as she reassuringly squeezed his hand when he welled up, overwhelmed at the audience's positive reaction to the final product he was seeing for the first time as well. In the group interview, the rapport between these three humans also showed a comfortable, lived-in closeness.
Haerry Kim, Director Andrew Ahn, and Joe Seo pose at the WireImage Portrait Studio hosted by Eddie Bauer at Village at the Lift in Park City on Day 4 of Sundance 2016.
ScreenPrism: How has your Sundance experience been so far?
Joe Seo: Everyone was just really cool and positive. They’re, like, “It was beautiful. You were beautiful. I just want to hug you!” It was really heartwarming and cool. The people that were there enjoyed the film, it spoke to them – it felt cozy.
Andrew Ahn: The Sundance audiences are so open and so supportive, and I think that they’re a really adventurous audience. They want to see new things. Something like this [film] wouldn’t scare them off or they wouldn’t write it off – they want to seek it out.
SP: My absolute kryptonite in movies is if it’s about Korean-Americans, identity, and sexuality. I was thrilled to find a movie that checked off all those things.
AA: I feel there’s not a lot of films that can check off those boxes. So it's cool that we can screen at a festival like this so that as many people can watch it as possible.
SP: I appreciated how, while the movie is very much steeped in and about the different facets of Korean-American culture, and identity because of that culture, it wasn’t necessarily about the struggle of being Korean-American.
AA: I think, in a lot of ways that struggle – the pieces might be different but they’re in the same places. This kind of expectation for college and going to hakwon [an institution or academy that specializes in intense outside-of-school teaching], they might be different struggles for a different person, but [the viewers] get it’s about education and “my parents wanting something for me even though I don’t necessarily want it.” So those things people can relate to, even if it’s Yong Kim being the academy director. [Laughs] He was so good in that. I love that [scene].
JS: He was real.
SP: There were so many characters in that movie that were so real. Like, Mrs. Baek, from church. I know her.
AA: Everyone knows her!
SP: The camerawork in the film is very interesting. It made me think of a "female gaze," with its lingering shots and pans over parts of David’s body. Were you trying to invert the traditional male gaze?
Haerry Kim: [Bursts out laughing]
AA: Yeah. A lot of the film was about transformation and growing up, the emotional side of that and the physical side of that. You can kind of see the opposite in the parent, with Jin struggling at the moving company with the boxes and with Soyoung’s character being tired all the time. I wanted to show Joe growing and being stronger. In some ways, his physical growth is in front of his emotional growth. It kind of pushes him along. It’s funny that you say female gaze, because for me, it’s gay gaze. Working with my cinematographer, Ki Jin Kim, who’s Korean-American, straight, married to one of my producers, Giulia Caruso, he really understood the point of view that we wanted, and some of it was just about being really close to the body, regardless of it being female or male. With David, we wanted to be really close to him, so that we could sympathize with him more.
SP: Is David actually supposed to be closeted, or is he just uninterested in girls? He seems to be more intrigued with the male body than closeted and confused. This leads to a related question: excepting the Korean boy at the end of the film, why are all of David’s dalliances are with older non-Koreans who aren't quite as in-shape as David?
JS: David is all of the above. His quest to fulfill and seek homosexual desires can be a puzzling one. The curiosity all starts with him in his development of his own body, and this parallels to his augmented desire for other men. As for David’s encounters, the older gay Caucasian gentleman was a fit guy. David actually lets himself be admired and lusted by this sexy man. As for the “not-so-in-shape” encounters, he controls his desire by pleasing himself in the restroom. What we see through these dalliances is David’s growth in strength: him being able to control his sexual release and him being able to collect pieces to form his sexual identity.
AA: It’s a little difficult to put a label on David, but I think it is safe to say that he is not fully straight. Whether he’s closeted, disinterested, intrigued, the main point is that he's different from his family’s expectation. I think David's journey in the film is to understand this difference and accept it for himself. I think David slowly explores his sexuality with these non-Korean men because it is safer – they are outside the community. There’s less opportunity for gossip. But when he meets a Korean guy at the end, David feels an intense connection that he feels the need to act on.
SP: David is always working out: busting out crunches in the beginning of the film, running through the streets of LA. How much training did you have to do to prepare for those scenes?
[Andrew, Haerry, and Joe all laugh]
JS: You don’t understand. I had a broken leg!
AA: You want to tell the story, Joe?
JS: I messed up my leg halfway through the shoot. There were times when it was really tough for me to walk. I was on crutches.
AA: We had a lot of running planned, and then Joe hurt his knee, because he plays soccer, and for the last week of the shoot, he could barely walk. Fortunately, the style of the film mostly stays on faces and close-ups. He would do this thing where he would walk out [of frame] and then, for a few scenes, he would take one step. I was also a body double at some point. There’s a scene where he’s walking into the sleeping room for the first time – those legs were mine.
JS: Those were some sexy legs.
AA: The running was actually a pickup shoot a few months later.
JS: After I got treated.
AA: His leg wasn’t 100 percent [better], but he was really gung-ho to do it. I’m going to embarrass you, but at the end, he was running really hard, and at one point he was lying on the ground. I was afraid we killed him, but, you know, Joe’s an athletic guy.
JS: I didn’t want that to be a burden. I wanted to be a useful character. David’s running [is a metaphor] for him going forward, and for me not to do it, I felt really bad.
SP: Why did you choose Los Angeles’s Koreatown as the setting for the film?
AA: Part of it was just we live in LA – except for Haerry – but also, it was that all the places we needed were in LA. The spas, the golf range, the streets: it was what I had scripted. For a lot of these locations, I chose actual places, which helped us when location scouting. For the most part, we stayed in and around Koreatown.
JS: I think that adds to the film. It shows the duality of real life: there’s K-Town, which is a hybrid of Korea and the US together, and it’s just a big depiction of it. The scenes of David running through the city itself, he’s just immersed in this duality of it. You see everything’s just coming together. It adds to the authenticity of the film and his character.
Haerry Kim, Andrew Ahn, and Joe Seo pose for WireImage Portrait Studio hosted by Eddie Bauer at Village at the Lift in Park City on Day 4 of Sundance 2016
SP: Speaking of authenticity, the Konglish [a mash-up of the English and Korean language] used in the film is so natural. How much of it was scripted?
JS: All scripted. It was tough, I had to adjust. Naw. Of course! Konglish is key to being Korean-American. It totally typifies the whole second-generation culture. Even Latino-Americans, they use Spanglish. That’s part of our identity. That’s what every second-generation can relate to.
AA: It was funny. During the casting process, because we always knew that whoever played David, we wanted him to have some level of being comfortable speaking Korean. It turned out that Joe really wanted to speak more Korean. The screenplay had more English, actually. Joe would naturally respond in Korean to his [on-screen] parents, and so we had to adjust and carve out more English [into the script] now and then. [For example, the line] “What if she thinks it’s gross, scrubbing [Mom's] back,” we wanted to make sure that was in English. One of my favorite parts, we didn’t subtitle it, and if an audience isn't really paying attention, they might get confused, but at the dol [traditional first birthday celebration], Joe says “What does it mean if they didn’t pick the don [money]?”
JS: There’s no subtitles for it!
AA: I remember my producers saying, “What is he saying? It sounds really weird.” And then I said, “He’s saying money in Korean.” We didn’t subtitle it because the next line was subtitled, “Money means being rich.” It was clear. Some of [the experience] was me being, like, it’s such a second-generation thing. I was actually telling Phil Yu, of Angry Asian Man, that I would love having a screening for a second-generation audience and turning all the subtitles off. It’d be so cool.
SP: Haerry, your character, Soyoung, is more than just a “strong female character.” She is resilient and doesn't let herself get bogged down with wistful memories of the past. What attracted you to the character?
HK: It started from the script. When I read it, I fell in love with it. It had so many layers. The first time I read the script, my husband asked, “Is this another waitress thing?” And yes, it was another waitress gig, but [Soyoung] had a whole arc, and then the specific details just opened the doors so I could breathe and try different things. And you’re right: Soyoung is very resilient and strong at the same time
AA: In my family, the women in the family are so strong. They run things; my grandma runs things. I always knew that that was going to be a part of that. Men – not just Korean men, but men in general – are so bad about dealing with emotions. [Emotions] paralyze them and I wanted to show that through Jin’s character, and that in many ways, women are more adaptable. In the moment where [Jin, Soyoung, and David] lose their restaurant, I wanted each character to have a different strategy, to have a different path.
SP: I really appreciated the film’s restraint. Some scenes could’ve turned into a melo [an especially dramatic and tragic genre of Korean television shows]. How did you avoid that?
AA: I think – I mean, I’m not a big fan of Korean dramas. When I watch them, I don’t watch them as a fan. When I watch them, it’s like this weird spectacle, because it’s so over the top.
HK: They’re sometimes strange to Koreans, too.
JS: People love them!
AA: People do love them. But the cool thing, working with these actors, they understood this wasn’t that kind of story.
HK: Yes, and he knew what emotional, in-depth part of the character he wanted to tap into. That was his way of navigating through [the story], and keeping [the story, the characters, and the emotions] contained so that when the audience sees it, s/he can relate to it. It’s not in the trying to relate, but the “when you see it, you know it.” I really appreciated the way [Ahn] approached the character’s emotions.
AA: What I really loved about working with each of the actors, is that you can see a certain amount of their personalities come out in the role. I remember shooting the scene where David is working out in the foreground and Soyoung is cutting the apple in the background. I remember thinking that this was a very normal scene, and what I loved about Haerry’s performance was that she’s kind of laughing. She’s amused by [David], and I remember thinking, “That’s so great, there’s more life in it that what I had imagined.” That kind of humanity and life is what you’re always looking for as a director and you know when to shut up and let it happen.
HK: Andrew gave me specific directions to peel the apple. My husband is a Korean adoptee; he’s never peeled apples, so he’s, like, “What are you doing.” [Andrew] told me how to peel the apple, and it just came naturally. Directors know which specific buttons to press on actors.
JS: It helps that Andrew is Korean, so he knows the smallest things. The pouring soju with two hands, all the little things that people overlook.
AA: It’s so Korean! And I love the sound design, you can hear [the peeling of the apple]. It’s one of my favorite things.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
SP: What was a favorite scene to film and a favorite scene to watch?
JS: The most memorable scene for me was David’s interaction with his father at the golf range parking lot. Favorite to watch was when David’s father was banging the air conditioner during dinner. I think it was hilarious because the father was so over-the-top with his frustrations. It was a fine line between absurdity and rage.
AA: I would say one of my favorite scenes to film and to watch is the golf range scene. It's such a cinematic space – the sound of the golf balls, the green nets that vibrate a little, the light. It's all very beautiful and very Korean. Plus the conversation in the car is a killer – I think it's really rare for Korean fathers to express their emotions. That Jin apologizes to his son is sweet but also terrifying for David.
SP: I very much liked that conversation, where Jin tells David that he’s proud of him and loves him just as he is, despite all the mounting pressure he's placed on his unwitting son.
AA: I think I always knew that – well, I wouldn’t say I always knew – I realized in the process [of making this film that] the more his parents loved and supported him, the harder it would be for him, in a way, to seemingly disappoint them. So even with Soyoung, who asks about the SATs, she’s very gentle about it. It’s not the stereotypical “let me see your test grades, son” conversation.
JS: The one time she did, it’s when Mrs. Baek [is in front of them.] Which is awesome. And real.
AA: And the conversation in the car outside the golf range, with Jin. I’ve had similar conversations with my dad and you get a little bit of the sense that [the parents] see the limitations of their lives, and the promise of what’s left is with you, and how much you really want, as a son, to get that payoff.
SP: How do you interpret the scene at the end of the film, when David breaks down in the showers and scrubs furiously at his stomach?
JS: During the whole film, you see David at the tipping point, at the boiling point. The pressure is too much for him, what he wants to do versus what he needs to do. The pressure is so overwhelming. Throughout the whole film, I really wanted to go oba, Korean-drama style, and go, “What the f**k?!” and go crazy because that’s the actor side of me, wanting to go crazy or go bigger. Even [when I throw down the key in front of the disapproving spa owner], the key scene, that was at the very end. And the whole scene of me exfoliating, that was my relief. That came to that point. [At the end], he runs, sprinting ahead. David is moving on, going forward, and saying, “This is who I am.”
AA: That character, David, you see him holding it in. We could have cut that scene shorter or have him scrub more subtly, but it would’ve been disrespectful to rob his character of that catharsis. What I love [about that scene]: it’s not about shame, it’s not about feeling dirty. I remember telling Joe, “You’re trying to scrub to find the new you. You’re growing. You’re trying to get to that part of you that’s real.” And Joe totally did an amazing performing in that moment. He opened up so much. As an actor, he really wanted to get there in some other scenes. We always had that conversation, to take it down a little bit, but the great thing about that particular scene was that he didn’t need to.