There have been upbeat coming-out films (But I’m a Cheerleader) and tragic, infuriating ones (Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain). Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night is executed on a significantly smaller scale, a deliberately anticlimactic one, which makes it all the more doleful.
It’s quiet to an almost eerie degree — there’s no original score — and it isn’t out to make a grand if-only-the-world-were-more-tolerant statement. There are no haters here, no bullies, and the only real enemy is the self-repression that plagues the shy, closeted Korean Angeleno teenager at its center.
David (Joe Seo) has such eternal gratitude to his struggling, somewhat nagging, but ultimately loving parents that he cowers at the very thought of transgressing against their rather traditional ways. They may prove not to be bigots, but he’s terrified that they might, given their (and his) solemnly religious upbringing.
He’s already racked with guilt from watching the costs of his education tear their marriage apart — in the film’s most wrenching scene, we discover that David’s father has slumped into a drunken stupor. David doesn’t much like the idea of college anyway. His only solace is in the night cleaner job he voluntarily, secretly takes at an all-men’s spa, where, he discovers, the after-hours sauna is a clandestine sexual free-for-all.
These sweaty scenes — mostly composed of tight facial close-ups — are both erotic and rueful. The dread that will ultimately follow David’s giving in to lust is evoked in every frame. And the shots of his literally rubbing himself raw, in self-flagellation, will break your heart.
Directed by Andrew Ahn
Opens August 19, Metrograph