Review: Spa Night at VQFF

Film still from Andrew Ahn's Spa Night

Film still from Andrew Ahn's Spa Night

In the first scene from Spa Night, directed by Korean Andrew Ahn and featuring a Korean-American cast, we’re not told much about what the movie is about, but right away you get the idea of what it’s going to feel like. It feels, literally, like being at a spa. There’s the sound of dripping water, shots of towelled faces under dim lights, heavy sauna breathing. And everything’s slow—the camera clicks between shots slowly, three cuts a minute at most, so slow you can feel your own heartbeat steadying down to resting speed. 

If this sounds boring, let me convince you otherwise. Before I get into the other reasons I like and disliked the movie, I want to argue that this is possibly the best introduction this movie could’ve come up with. I mean this is—the best.

I’ll make this quick: 

  1. Spa Night’s introduction is brilliant because it inverts our expectations about what an introduction is and what an introduction can do. While most introductions work with suspense, and tension, and frills—the same traits, you’ll notice, as click bait—to enamour us and seduce us and all but demand out attention, Spa Night is more delicate. Instead of compounding the stress we brought with us to the movies, it eases it. It’s like a palate cleanser. It eliminates stimulation.
  2. Spa Night’s introduction is brilliant because if there’s a secondary character, it’s the spa, and right away we get a handle on the spa’s attributes. The spa is a meeting place for families, a place of vulnerability, a place of calm, and also, as will became important later, a place where bodies are on display.
  3. Spa Night’s introduction works because it doesn’t eschew the other important qualities of a good introduction. This is an important one. I don’t know how many other movies I’ve watched that aim for something new, or different, and forget to introduce the main characters, or strike a tone that’s inconsistent with the rest of the film. Spa Night doesn’t make these mistakes.
  4. Most importantly, Spa Night’s introduction puts us into a position to empathize with the main character, David. By replicating the effects of spa, the movie effectively puts us into the same room as David—you can feel the heat of the spa he feels, and it’s slowness, and the way it makes your head feel heavy and your body enervated and completely sleepy. The introduction doesn’t so much put us in the shoes of David as much as it puts us behind his skin. We feel, at that moment, what it’s like to be David. This turns out to be very important. 

The rest of the movie logically unfolds out of this starting point. For the most part, it lives up to its beginning.

Spa Night is, more than anything else, about David. It does occasionally move beyond David to speak about his first-generation Korean parents and the issues they face—poverty, regret, alcoholism—but all of this secondary coverage is in the name of situating him in a context. The question is always: but how will this affect David?

So who is he? David, and his personality, are painfully easy to summarize. David is a wallflower without the normal defences of a wallflower—he doesn’t have their typical quick wit, humour, or intelligence. Instead, he’s rather classically adolescent. He takes selfies of his flexed abs in the mirror; he has few opinions; he only speaks when spoken to. He’s an 18 year old with the maturity (and good intentions) of a 13 year old, and an obvious victim of helicopter parents. And this, again, is one of the reasons the introduction, which helps us feel what it’s like to be David, is so important. This isn’t someone everyone can naturally identify with, or would want to, so to be forced to at the beginning is essential.

The next bulk of the movie takes this character mould of David, and it tests him. First his parents, his main buttress of support, lose their main source of income and sputter into total disfunction. Next David fails to make the real leap of faith from high school immaturity to collegiate independence. And how could he? He’s always had all of his decisions made for him. So, in few too many scenes we watch him flounder. He fails to assimilate with his former friends (now gym-rat bros) during a visit to USC. He fails to get the grades he needs to pass his SATs. He starts to notice his own homoerotic urges. And he becomes increasingly agitated and aimless. During this section we watch more and more scenes of David running (usually away from the perspective of the camera), and we get the point — his running is a symbol of wanting to escape, but he doesn’t know where to run to. 

Spoiler alert: He ends up at a Korean spa where he finds a cluster of underground gay Korean men. Finding this refuge at this time turns out to be of extreme dramatic interest: is this where David will finally begin his own identity formation? Will he find a community of like-minded people who can help him understand himself and heal? Also: will he start a romance? If he does, how will this mesh with his Christian conservative parents? The ending turns out to be as effective as the beginning—for different reasons—and altogether the movie does the good work of a good movie—it crafts a unique character you probably haven’t seen in cinema before, and it helps you empathize with David so closely it veers on total immersion, which turns out to be awkward, painful, but completely worthwhile.