Set in L.A.’s Koreatown, “Spa Night” is a classic American story of immigrant parents and assimilated children. The assured feature debut by Andrew Ahn is also the story of a young gay man’s sexual awakening, and its sensitive lead performance affectingly expresses the tension between tradition and personal identity.
Joe Seo, as much a discovery as the movie’s writer-director, plays 18-year-old David, a first-generation Korean American whose first words in the film are “Dad, I can’t breathe.” Father and son are in the steam room of a bathhouse, a weekly family ritual, and David is talking about the stifling heat, but it’s soon clear that his parents’ aspirations for him — college degree, professional career, marriage and family — are just as oppressive as the room’s thick air.
Money troubles force David’s father and mother, played respectively by the superb South Korean actors Youn Ho Cho and Haerry Kim, to close their small restaurant. Still they insist on expensive SAT prep classes for David. “We didn’t move here so you could move furniture,” his taciturn father blurts out in an anguished moment.
With his guileless face, Seo reveals a hidden self, tormented by longing and shame. At the men-only Korean bathhouse where David takes a menial job, the furtive cruising culture fascinates and excites him, even as he’s tasked with policing it — yet again caught between duty and desire.
Ahn’s erotically charged, quietly devastating drama suggests David might yet find a way to be true to himself, but it finds no easy answers for this good son.
In Korean and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood.