It was when a friend mentioned to Andrew Ahn that he had a sexual encounter at a Korean spa that the idea for his first feature was born, not necessarily the act that sent his mind racing, but the place, which he had previously considered hallowed ground having used to bath in one with his father as a boy. “Spa Night,” which just premiered at Sundance, actually opens with such a scene as the college-aged Daniel (Joe Seo) innocently scrubs the back of his father (Youn Ho Cho), much to dismay of his mother Soyoun (Haerry Kim) who complains outside that she wishes she had a daughter to do the same. It’s the least Daniel can do for his parents, who moved to Korea and opened a restaurant in Los Angeles with the hope of giving him a better life, but after the restaurant is forced to close, Daniel is expected to carry his own weight by finally trying to get into college, which outside of his limited experience in the real world leads to self-discovery in a myriad of ways.
Though the experience isn’t Ahn’s own specifically, there isn’t a single moment that feels anything less than authentic, even as Daniel’s part-time job at an all-hours Korean spa leads him to see things that firmly go against club rules. With cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, Ahn vividly captures the minutia of Korean-American culture and of the city of Los Angeles to create an unusually resonant study of a young man wrestling with responsibility he’s long delayed while figuring out who he is, a story told time and again, but emerges anew here from fresh eyes and a perspective rarely seen on screen. Shortly before the film premiered in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival, Ahn spoke about the ongoing intersection of his personal and professional life that gave him the confidence to make “Spa Night,” the difficulties in shooting in a working spa and how the story of grew from that of an individual into one about a family.
“Dol” really gave me the balls to go for “Spa Night,” which is a pretty grim story. It was a way to really examine how you can make film really personal, and that there is a meaningfulness to the work and a reason why I was telling this story. It’s not like I actually came out to my parents or anybody else through that film, but there still was that level of like, “Oh, this is a part of who I am and there is a vulnerability to it.” With “Dol,” which is a very Korean-American short that had to do with First Birthday, I also was showing it at festivals and people were relating to it even though they weren’t Korean, so I felt like I could make a feature that had to do with Korean-American culture and people could still relate to it. It was definitely a good warm-up for “Spa Night.”
Even though you don’t make a big point of it, this film really invokes every part of Korean-American life, at least as I’ve seen it in Los Angeles. Did touching all those bases inform how the film was structured?
When I was developing the film, the very first draft actually took place entirely at the Korean spa in one night. The title “Spa Night” is actually a little bit of a hold-over from that and the more I developed the film, the more I realized that it wasn’t necessarily just the spa that I was interested in, it was about this character and how he felt in the spa. The only way to really get to that was to show him outside the spa, and to show his life at church, with his family, with peers. So I just started thinking about these iconic Korean-American locations and and communities and that’s how I [realized] there has to be a church, a restaurant, and a golf driving range green. I also really wanted it to have a Korean-American college fratty theme. All these elements started to come together.
There was a lot of shuffling around, not only in the screenwriting, but also in the production and in editing. A lot of the structure was really how can I cram in as much of the Korean-American experience as I can and not do it willy-nilly, but in a way that services the story. I was very, very excited when I was like, “Okay, I can make this church theme work. I can make this golf driving range theme work.” It wasn’t an ethnological survey of Korean-American [life], but really like, “What are these locations that I’ve been to and that I’m familiar with that feel really Koreatown?”
I’ve also never seen a film that deals with the American Dream quite like this, where the parents have struggled to create a better life for their son and it’s not necessarily what he wants. How did that creep into the film?
I’m the son of immigrant Korean parents and what I find really interesting about a lot of the conversation that happens in the media is that it’s mostly about Tiger Moms and I think it’s a little one-sided. It’s really the perspective of the parent and to me, the perspective of the child is just as interesting. What I have started to really appreciate is that my parents left their home country, basically for me to start a family and when I think about anyone whose family has been here for generations, your parents didn’t sacrifice anything unnecessarily to be here.
As a second-generation person, I am very aware of why I’m here, and it creates a strange kind of pressure, [which transfers to] David in the film. He knows that they came here for him, so there’s a certain amount of him having to live up to expectations. And yes, there are many Korean people who achieve the American Dream and send their kids off to great colleges and their kids are doing really awesome things, but there’s also subset of the community that doesn’t necessarily achieve that dream, and you don’t hear about them so often because even the Korean-American people don’t want to talk about it. There’s a certain amount of shame or embarrassment that comes with that, but I feel like it does a disservice to them because it doesn’t mean that this population hasn’t tried, it’s just that sometimes it’s difficult or there’s other circumstances.
What I realized was that for David in the film, what makes his dilemma so difficult isn’t that his parents are terrible people. It’s that they’re actually really caring and they believe in him so much. That belief makes it more heartbreaking and stressful for David to let them know that he might not be able to live up to their expectations.
Logistically, was it difficult to find a spa to shoot in? These places don’t typically have off-hours.
It was tricky and I knew from the very beginning that [the film in general] was going to be a production challenge because we needed a lot of access to the Korean-American community and it’s a film that they might not necessarily support because of the subject matter. Homosexuality is still very controversial within the Korean-American community.
With the spas, we couldn’t have access to one spa for the duration that we needed, so we shot at three different spas and pieced them together. The most distinctive part of the spa – the wet area with the blue neon lights – I desperately wanted that location because it’s such a striking place visually, and the only way to get that spa was to shoot in the middle of the night, and we only had eight hours. Then we had to shoot everything else in a different spa for the locker room and the steam room and the sleeping room. It was the only way we could get that to happen. Fortunately, it was really seamless when we matched it, but it was definitely a challenge. We really had to be flexible to them and that’s something that we could do because we kept the crew small and we knew that there’s a certain way that we could make the movie.
You mention the lights and throughout the film, it really replicates what it’s like to be in the city. Did you mostly use ambient light?
I talked about this story a lot as a Los Angeles story, and one that you don’t necessarily get to see. I know so many people who drive through Koreatown, but they don’t necessarily stop in it, or they’ve been to Korean barbecues, but they’ve never been to a spa or a Korean mega-church. The lighting was really tricky because, again, we were a small crew and we had to be fast and efficient. Some of it was taking advantage about what existed. For example, that spa with the blue neon lights, they also had these really, really warm Tungsten lights, and my [cinematographer] and I really talked about, “Where can we place our actors? How can we utilize blocking?” to maximize this mixed lighting situation that we really wanted. We really wanted that warmth and that cold blue in the same frame, as much as possible.
With some spaces that we had a little bit more control, my [cinematographer] was trying to bring that quality into it. It was like, “How can we get daylight plus a little bit of Tungsten? In Koreatown, where can we find those orange sodium vapor lights as opposed to the really ugly LEDs that are out there now?” We did a lot of location scouting and also creative blocking so that we didn’t have to set up five lights to get the shot that we wanted.
Visually, you also have this fascinating way of partitioning the body in scenes where there’s physicality. Was that a foundational idea?
We thought about it a lot. In some ways, at the beginning of the film, David isn’t quite fully human. He’s still reliant on his parents and he hasn’t fully formed his own identity, so it was a lot about how do we visualize that. One way was to break up his body so you don’t fully necessarily see his full figure. We had this idea that David takes selfies early in the film, and they kind of cropped out his face – there’s something about that that we really liked [because] who are you if it’s just your body? There’s something about the selfies that we used as a visual strategy.
The other thing was with the spa, there’s quite a lot of nudity, and we didn’t [want that to come off] in a lewd way because in Korean spa culture, everybody just walks around naked and it’s not an issue. It feels very normalized. What happens is to get the body to be more erotic, you actually want to show less because that allows your imagination to run wild with what’s outside the frame. And since we always knew that as the film was going to get more sexual, you’re going to see less and less and less of the body, so it was really about perspective. How can we put you in the perspective of David as he experiences these things?
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
I wouldn’t say a particular day, but there were a few moments in the shooting that were really difficult. On the very first day that we had the parent characters, the actors were coming from Korea, so for the first two days of the shoot, it was just David and we shot the sequences at USC with the other younger actors. When the parents came, that’s when the film kind of snuck up on me and felt real. There was a scene that we shot with his dad that we actually ended up cutting. It didn’t feel very significant, but when we shot it and I had him in there interacting with David, I suddenly realized, “Oh, God. This is the emotional core of the film,” and I couldn’t stop crying. It was tough and my [cinematographer] was crying. We were a mess. We needed a few minutes.
The very last week when most of the spa sequences were shot was also really challenging. We’d scheduled that on purpose because we knew that those spa shoots were going to be really difficult and we really wanted to make sure that the crew was working like a well-oiled machine at that point.
Again, because these spas have really odd hours, we were doing these graveyard shifts between 10pm-10am, so I’d get home after shooting at around noon and then sleep until five. It was terrible. It was so physically taxing and I could barely sleep during the day because it’s boiling hot summertime. By the end of the shoot, I’d lost 10 pounds and it was just a 17-day shoot.
Was this what you thought it would be when you first started it?
The film really evolved to become a real family story. Initially, it would’ve been very easy to make a traditional coming of age story that follows this young character’s sexual awakening where the parents end up becoming the Peanuts’ “waa waa waa.” But throughout the development, I really knew the parents are what makes David’s struggle more interesting. One of my favorite filmmakers is Yasujiro Ozu and the more I was working on this film, the more I really felt that Ozu-like family quality. That’s something that I was really excited about and really happy to continue to push.
What I really love about this film is that you could go from a scene where David is in the spa witnessing and participating in this active gay [sex scene] and then the very next scene, it’s a dinner scene with the family. That’s something that I really wanted to explore. David is not just a sexual being but he’s also a son within the same film. I wasn’t going to just show one side of him. I was going to try to make it as complete a portrait as possible.