Screening Skin

Note: A condensed version of this review appears in CINEMQ

Near the end of Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), the protagonist’s mother (Haerry Kim) stares blankly at the property that she and her husband (Youn Ho Cho) first shared after immigrating to the United States from Korea. She reminisces about how impressed she was when he picked her up in a Cadillac that he bought for cheap. “We were so excited to be here,” she says, not taking her eyes from the apartments. By now their family business has gone under (“I bet no one will even notice we’re gone,” she muses aloud at one point) while her husband, unable to secure steady manual work, has increasingly turned to drinking. Despite the family’s mounting financial difficulties, the couple insists on sending their son David (Joe Seo) to an expensive SAT prep program to save face and ensure that he gets into a good college. Unbeknownst to them, he’s taken a job at a local spa to assist them instead, a situation that compounds his growing anxiety over his future and unacknowledged attraction to other men.

Spa Night is a remarkably delicate film, at odds with the bells and whistles of bigger commercial features, dwelling on the mundane moments and uncomfortable silences often eschewed by Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a cinema of surfaces, not least in its preoccupation with the skin deep, which is not to say it’s shallow. Rather, its attentiveness to appearances is what enables it effectively to evoke rather than sermonize on the pain and confusion of growing up bearing the twin burdens of economic precarity and sexual shame.

In one scene, the family watches a Korean TV series, leading its patriarch, soon to be dealing with his own crisis of masculinity, to comment that the male leads “look like women.” His wife, without missing a beat, chimes in to say that she likes the young men’s long hair and appearances, even suggesting David should grow his hair out. Afterwards, her gaze lingers on her son from behind. It’s a brief exchange, but it highlights potential tensions between traditional expectations that men be physically tough breadwinners and the changing gender norms exemplified by male K-drama and K-pop stars’ flirtations with femininity and androgyny, cues originally borrowed from Japanese pop culture and increasingly playing to their predominantly female fan base’s fantasies. Still, while changing cultural expectations might allow for greater flexibility in some respects, it’s clear from his parents’ marital pleas (marry a Korean girl so we can communicate with her) and the casual homophobia that he encounters while on a night out with his college host’s friends that there are limits to this tolerance. Playful ambiguity may be a refuge for some stars, but everyone else is expected to pass as straight or face stigma and exclusion from members of a sexually conservative, tight-knit community.

What’s remarkable about the locales that the film foregrounds—Korean restaurants, cram schools, churches, and karaoke bars—is how unceremoniously they decenter those that tend to dominate the big screen. And while the filmmaker’s conscious decision to have most dialogue in a non-English language feels natural given the setting in LA’s Koreatown, the move also feels deliberately, refreshingly defiant at a time when national belonging is increasingly defined in terms of linguistic and cultural conformity. More than just serving as sites of collective belonging, however, these settings also open networks that double as indispensable economic lifelines for their members. After her family’s financial troubles, David’s mother secures a new job working in the restaurant of an old friend from her church, Mrs. Baek (Linda Han), who casually invites the less-than-scholarly David to tour USC with her son, Eddie (Tae Song).

The ensuing night out with Eddie’s friends alienates the already introverted protagonist further after he is caught eyeing his guide during a brief spa detour. The experience reaffirms for him the mismatch between his personality and the demands of college life and prompts him to further explore his previously unacted-upon feelings. It also underscores the extent to which these social ties, and the ever-present specter of intra-community gossip, put pressure on sexual nonconformists like David to be discreet, lest he risk both his own already uncertain social and economic position and that of his family. Put another way, this is not a “coming-out” story. Indeed, there are good reasons, given all this, why it cannot be one, and some sociologists, like C. Winter Han, have noted before that there is research suggesting that, at least for some Asian Americans, more roundabout, less confrontational approaches to balancing personal desires and community expectations may yield better results anyway.

Skin plays a role in all this. David works out obsessively, doing pushups and crunches in his spare time and going for daily runs. One is left with the impression of someone who is intent on tearing himself apart, outrunning himself, or, at the very least, molding himself into an image that he can live with. We watch as the character uses his phone to capture his progress, runs his fingers across his stomach. The camera lingers on the snapshot. Viewers, then, do not so much as see David as they watch him observing himself, trying desperately to become someone or something else.

If skin is the medium of contact with the world, though, it is also something typically concealed in public life. Spa Night does not hesitate to challenge this concealment and its meaning by foregrounding the spa itself as a space that catalyzes David’s self-awakening. Nor is this a matter of cheap tantalization. The wonderfully ambient cinematography of Ki Jin Kim draws viewers into a warm, hazy world of bodies juxtaposed and shuffling about one another, punctuated by splashes of neon blues, but above all it highlights the multiple, sometimes conflicting cultural and sexual meanings they carry for the individuals inhabiting these spaces. As Ahn movingly explains in one interview,

Korean spas felt sort of sacred, in a way. We went every New Year’s to cleanse, like you had to have a clean body to start the year. It felt like church. The film is a way for me to forge a queer Korean-American identity, to find these situations where the two cultures aren’t separate, but they co-exist. It’s this question of being whole.

These concerns are evident in the film’s opening scene, in which David scrubs his father’s back at the spa, an act of filial piety that carries none of the sexual connotations typically associated with nudity and physical closeness in (Anglo-)American culture. And yet this scene could be read as having Freudian undertones as well, as the incapacitated father’s presence during David’s first real sexual encounter perhaps suggests a slippage between paternal prohibition and the son’s longing for other men. In any case, the spa’s meaning as only about homosocial bonding is compromised by the presence of gay cruisers who have begun repurposing the location, much to David’s fascination and other patrons’ chagrin. Slowly, he moves closer to these scenes, allowing one older white man to masturbate to him, though he stops short of allowing the stranger to touch him.

It’s only when David finds another Korean man who expresses interest that he goes further, perhaps recognizing for first time that it’s possible to unite being gay and being Korean in the same body (prior to this, the only allusion to an openly gay character referred to Eddie’s off-screen, presumably non-Korean roommate and the mostly white, black, and Latino cruisers), but the encounter is cut short after the spa owner glimpses the pair. The anonymous contact, for his part, has his own reservations about touching: He pulls back when David attempts to kiss him. For David, then, the spa serves both as a site of family bonding as well as a wellspring of novel intimacies. It brings together the dilemmas confronting him without holding out any promise to neatly resolve them.

The problems faced by David are often profound (wrestling with one’s obligation to family versus oneself, wondering how to go on without some solid basis for hope) but just as often physical and unglamorous (the stickiness of not being able to afford a new air conditioner, the sting of scrubbing guilty skin raw, and the suffocation as well as the intimacy of living in such close quarters with one’s parents and the expectations that they represent). And while films like Spa Night need no justification beyond their immersive honesty and tactile resonance, they are also timely in their challenges to mythic invocations of an America predicated on sameness and their rejection of a dream long since discredited for many. Ahn narrates another America, one with its own internal tensions and contradictions, reminding of the countless ways individuals inhabit their skins, communities, and worlds and insisting on the urgency of recognizing that these lives and experiences matter too.

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