Four years ago, filmmaker Andrew Ahn came out to his parents through the best method he knew – a short LGBT movie, “Dol,” which means “First Birthday” in Korean.
“Dol” propelled Ahn into the Sundance circuit (in trying to explain the feat to his mother, he put it in terms of college admissions: “Mom, it’s easier to get into Harvard than it is to get into Sundance with a short.”) for the first time, and this year he returned to the festival with a feature-length film, “Spa Night.” The award-winning pic now looks toward an Aug. 26 premiere in Los Angeles, where it will have a limited release.
The film follows David, a young, gay Korean American man who discovers the secret world of sexual activity inside the City of Angels’ Korean spas while facing fears of coming out to his immigrant parents.
Ahn has kept his work closely tied to his own experiences, and has used his parents and family as actors in his previous projects. This effort is no exception.
Growing up in Torrance as, much like David, the son of immigrants with close ties in the Korean American community, Ahn frequented spas with his father as a kid. Korean spas – bathhouses, as in the kind in which you may have spotted Conan O’Brien – have served as community fixtures and family outlets for decades. When a friend informed him of having a hot hook-up inside a spa steam room, Ahn was shocked.
(“Spa Night”/Courtesy photo)
“It was a family space, a very cultural space,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that a space I went to as a kid was being used in that way. As a gay man, it was kind of exciting, too – this intersection of my gay and Korean identities in this location was really what inspired me to start writing ‘Spa Night.’”
Make no mistake, though: Despite the implications of its synopsis and subject matter, this is not so much a movie about sex as it is a movie about the Korean American identity, in particular Ahn’s, and the balance of desire and familial duty that comes with it. “I wanted to talk about how, in many ways, these two parts of who I am, [gay and Korean American], can sometimes feel mutually exclusive and how that’s a blockade in growing and personal development,” he said.
“Spa Night” could only take place in Koreatown, home to the largest Korean American population outside Korea. “This film is as American as a cowboy Western. This isn’t a film that could take place in Korea,” Ahn said. David’s parents run a K-Town restaurant; they attend church; they go to the spa together. The neighborhood is as much a character as he is, and so are the flashes of the Korean American community in the background, both of immigrants and their children.
“I tried to think, ‘What were my parents’ hopes and expectations when they got here?’” Ahn said. What emerged out of that question was a story of labor and love, he said. “Love is at the cornerstone of the Korean American community. It brings us together. It’s this shared affection and love and respect for each other that keeps us staying involved, and it was something I wanted to highlight in ‘Spa Night’ as being a part of Korean culture.”
That importance of family, and of community, makes the movie one directed, in part, toward parents of LGBT kids.
“I really want this to be a film that parents can watch, and that helps them understand what their son or daughter might be going through,” Ahn said. “I wanted to start that dialogue: What does it mean to be queer and Korean American?”