Stay With Me: Spa Night movie review
Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which looks at the struggles of a young Korean American man in Los Angeles coming to grips with his queerness, at first may seem like a throwback to pre-Stonewall “gay=guilt” cinematic tropes. But rather than a retrograde portrayal it instead represents a step forward in queer filmic representations, recognizing the significance of intersectional identities found in LGBTQ people of color.
Spa Night is a thoughtful and nuanced movie that goes beyond a lot of queer cinema’s current trend toward hot makeout sessions interspersed with romantic melodrama. Back in the day when New Queer Cinema took off back in the 1990s with movies like Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche 1994), The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Münch, 1991), and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), among many others, it was important to show queer sex onscreen since it had been silenced and suppressed for so long. At that time just the act of boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing signaled a radical moment. But now it’s almost become a cliché—I wrote a couple years ago about how every film I saw at Frameline Festival included the obligatory buffed dudes/cute chicks in tank tops stripping off and faking same-sex sex. Even mainstream television has queer couples tongue-locking all the time, so although homophobia remains rampant in US culture at large, it’s not as rare as it was back in the nineties to see LGBT coupling onscreen.
So in some ways Spa Night may seem relatively tame in relation to mainstream queer cinema (and it’s great that there is a such a thing, btw). Instead of a standard coming-out story where boy or girl announces his or her queerness to the world and such announcement is revelatory and life-affirming, Spa Night presents a much more layered and densely observed look at a young Korean American man’s gradual recognition of his sexuality. The film’s realization of the main character’s mixed feelings, confusion, and shame may seem like a reversion to the old days when any gay character was a tragic homosexual destined for unhappiness and grief. But Spa Night acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is not the end of confusion but often just the first step to self-realization.
The film depicts the complexities of a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality within a traditional Korean immigrant family. Set mostly in a bathhouse in Los Angeles’s Koreatown the film is not without several steamy suggestions of gay longing and desire, but for the most part the action is implied rather than explicit. David, the main character played by Joe Seo, grapples with maintaining a balance between his family obligations and the burgeoning realization of his sexual desires. Presented without judgment or blame, the film instead simply delineates David’s attempts to fulfill his family duties and his parents’ wishes for him to marry and carry on the family name while gradually recognizing his own sexual identity. The film recognizes David’s struggle to reconcile these sometimes oppositional forces. It also acknowledges that the simple pre- and post-coming out binary may not work within the bounds of a non-Western cultural context, as David’s filial piety, family responsibilities, cultural expectations, and other culturally specific concerns come into play.
Although it may not seem as edgy as its predecessors in New Queer Cinema in fact Spa Night is a step forward for the genre. The film recognizes the very different tensions that queer Asian Americans may face as they balance a multiplicity of identities, histories, and expectations.