Considering how many festival attendees arrive from LA, it is rare to find a movie in the competition that is entirely based there, in large part due to the emphasis on finding new voices of cinema from elsewhere. And yet, there are so many untold stories to be discovered in LA: here is one of them.
Spa Night is billed as being a movie about a Korean teenager discovering his sexuality at the titular Koreatown spas, but it is actually a broader story of being a first-generation Korean-American and the trials that come with it. Joe Seo plays David, an only child to two Korean immigrants who are struggling to make ends meet as he prepares to apply to college and live up to his parents wishes. The film is much more about the unique and loving relationship David has with his parents, which is why the film flourishes. The truth is David’s sense of insecurity and strong desire to live up to his parents is relatable to anyone, so this movie encapsulates what director Ang Lee calls “Universality in the culturally specific.”
Spa Night director Andrew Ahn aims for ultimate authenticity and hits his mark. His characters and situations feel painfully accurate all throughout the movie, and I would imagine even more so for Korean-Americans. The film’s alternation between social situations with the protagonists and private moments with the family allow for the audience to see the numerous ways these characters interact and portray themselves. As an insight into this world, this is a very eye-opening film.
The strength of authenticity also proves to be a weakness. Forgoing a musical score and shooting at a more muted pace means that at times it doesn’t feel like it’s moving forward at all. That isn’t to say individual scenes aren’t engaging, but based on the initial premise, it is expected that movement may happen faster than it does. Perhaps knowing that this film remains at a simmer for the duration will help viewers more thoroughly enjoy the artistic work.
Overall, Spa Night is a success and an artistic breakthrough, despite the fact that its pacing and restrained style may hinder it from general viewer interest. The city of Los Angeles has so many movies in production yet so few try to tell stories that are new discoveries, so for this alone Spa Night deserves recognition. Its attention to characters, environment, and reality are top-tier for a directorial debut, and my hope is that Andrew Ahn’s next work can elevate the overall story elements that are not as strong as the individual scenes.