Culture is conflict in Andrew Ahn’s debut feature, Spa Night. Protagonist David (Joe Seo), who, like Ahn himself, is the son of parents who emigrated from Korea, awakens sexually in the Korean spas in Los Angeles that he frequents with his family and friends. Meanwhile, his family’s expectation that he’ll settle down with a nice Korean girl (and furthermore, their financial dependency on him) pull him away from immediate acceptance of his sexuality. Ahn’s film is as muted and meditative as it is sexually frank—this movie is as much about tenuous family bonds as it is public cruising.
Not only is Spa Night well-acted and economically written, it strikes me as a crucial piece of gay culture for providing what is lacking: the depiction of a gay Asian man as a sexual being with desires and agency. Yesterday (as the professional world around me crumbled, as luck would have it), Ahn visited the Gawker office to discuss his film, the polarity of culture, and the politics of expressing gay sexuality in this context. I found him to be as frank and sharp as his film. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Jezebel: I thought this movie was hot.
Andrew Ahn: Good, I’m glad.
That was part of the idea, right?
Yeah. I had made some shorts before that were very much about repressed Korean Americans and I kinda wanted to do something where I showed what being gay means, which a big part of that is wanting to have sex with men (laughs). I wanted to deal with that in a more explicit way.
Is that political for you?
It’s political in that I’m trying to force an audience to understand a human being and see a perspective on race and class and sexuality that a lot of people don’t often see. So in that kind of human way, it is. In terms of any specific agenda, I wouldn’t say it’s super overt.
Diverse representation within gay pop culture is dire, but even the strides that have been made typically don’t include Asian men. There’s [an upcoming show that I think I signed an NDA for so I’m not going to spill here] that includes a clearly self-consciously diverse cast of gay men. An Asian is not among them. Your movie is an antidote to that.
We saw it with Looking, too. That was kind of shocking to the gay Asian community because there are so many gay Asian boys in San Francisco. How could there not be one character? I think a lot of it has to do with this stereotype of “No Asians” on all the apps. There was that drag queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Kim Chi, who said, “No fats, no fems, no Asians,” is something he’s heard a lot. With Spa Night, I wanted to show desire, that this character has sexual wants and is not just an asexual or a sexual object. He can objectify men. I think that’s an agency.
Have you dealt with that racism from other gay men?
In strange ways. I’ve kind of protected myself by surrounding myself with a group of gay Asian friends. There was a night in West Hollywood called GAMeBoi that was really big in the formation of my gay identity. It was every Friday night, 18-and-up gay Asian boys—that really was great. I really have been in situations where I’ve gone out on dates with white guys and I’m always wondering am I being fetishized. You look at their dating history and you find out they’ve only dated Asian men and you feel like you’re not being liked for who you are, you’re being liked because you’re Asian.
That’s a fine line to negotiate, though. As a white guy, I realize it’s easy for me to say this, and a dating situation is different, but in a hook-up situation, you better fetishize me. You better appreciate and worship what I have and am.
I think it goes back a little bit to what I was saying before: [Spa Night protagonist] David can objectify men. He has the power to objectify men. There’s something about sex that for me in some ways... if you get to know a human being, sometimes it’s too complex to have sex with him. It’s overwhelming, it’s intimidating. There’s this thing about anonymous hook-ups that because this person means nothing to you that makes it sexier and hotter. In some ways, in Spa Night, that’s the safety David has, this anonymity, this not having to know people that allows him to slowly but surely explore his sexuality.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that you show David’s dick and that it’s a nice dick, too. Was that a pointed refutation of the stereotype of the small Asian penis?
Kind of. For me, it was like, it’s this question of getting to know your body. There was this moment while we were shooting that scene where it was like, “You’re gonna take this picture, you’re fluffing yourself—you want to look good.” It’s sexy, but also kind of hilarious to me because he zooms in on it to check it out and make it bigger [on the screen]. It wasn’t specifically like, “We need to show the biggest cock on an Asian guy,” it was more like, “We’re gonna show a cock on an Asian guy.” Whether it’s huge or small, it’s this guy getting to know his body and feeling good about it.
It’s bizarre to me that those kind of stereotypes exist. They come from pure ignorance. Having sex with Asian guys is all it takes to refute those stereotypes, just like that.
It’s an unknowing. I think it’s also easy in the game of love and sex to put down other people to make yourself feel better. If one person starts saying it, and it feels OK to say, then other people will start saying it. To combat that, it’s really just about drowning out that kind of negativity, that kind of dehumanizing sentiment.
The movie is rife with male nudity otherwise, and it didn’t have to be. Was that a pointed statement on your part as well?
Whenever I wanted to show the spa as a cultural space, I wanted to see a lot. It didn’t make sense to have an artfully placed shampoo bottle. It would look so dumb. But then I told myself that as the scenes got more erotic, you’d see less and less and less and it was more about this feeling of sexual tension as opposed to showing it, which can be really difficult. I remember watching Blue Is the Warmest Color and Stranger By the Lake, and you see these very explicit sex scenes and it kind of throws you out of the movie. I knew for this we had to be really in David’s head, so I wanted to find the right visual strategy for those scenes. It is really interesting, though to me. The reason I was fascinated by Korean spas is because in one instance it would feel really normal, and then it would very easily slip into something that’s very sexual. It would be such a quick transition.
In your own experience?
In my own experience. It was fascinating seeing how nudity is played with in spas. There are certain spas in Korea Town that are known for their cruisiness, and the guys are actually often wearing towels. If you’re totally naked, the game is up. You’ve got to use your nudity as a strategy, and then you see the Korean dudes who are just there to bathe themselves and they’re just naked and it doesn’t matter. I realized very quickly that there was this culture and this strategy in gay cruising that was beyond, “We both happen to be here.” It was about things people planned on and wanted and looked for. That’s when I was like, “Oh, it’s a culture.” It fascinated me and made me want to make the movie even more.
Given the space spas occupy in Korean culture, it seems daring of you to portray this side of them.
Korean spas are super traditional cultural spaces. It’s very family-oriented. You often go with kids. I went with my dad when I was a kid. We’d go every New Year’s to get clean for the upcoming year, so to find out that it’s being used as a space for gay cruising was totally shocking to me. But even in Korea, it’s something that I know happens. Whenever you get naked men together, there’s bound to be something. Korean spas are social spaces. It’s going to slip into the sexual very easily. There’s something about David in the film where he’s allowed to be in that space because he’s Korean but when he finds out this is happening, he can be close to it. It’s not like a gay bathhouse where if you go, people know why you’re there.
And you are admitting to yourself...
...Why you’re there. You have to. If you go to a spa, you can have the cover of, “I’m just here to relax,” or, “I’m just here to get a scrub.” It’s a great place for closetedness. In some ways that’s what makes it riskier and sexier for some men.
Have you gotten any pushback from Koreans, though?
I’m waiting for it. I’ll say that so far we’ve screened in festivals and festival audiences are pretty generous. They’re there because they want to see the movie. But I’m expecting it and I feel like I’m prepared for it. The film is made in a way that I feel like even people who are homophobic could watch it and feel some sort of sympathy for that character. I dare someone to judge David in this movie for feeling conflicted.
Was your coming out process at all like David’s? I mean, I guess he doesn’t actually come out.
The most he does in the film is come out to himself. There’s a transition he makes from gay desire to gay identity and it’s kind of a small thing, but for me, it’s kind of like when he asks that guy at the end, “Are you Korean?” and then tries to kiss him. It becomes more than a physical exploit. Yeah, the first couple of times I hooked up with guys, I still wouldn’t have said out loud, “I’m gay.” There’s this kind of catch up that your brain has to do to your body. Your body moves first and then you follow. In that way, I felt really in line with David. And then with his family, too, it’s like, I remember thinking after I came out to myself, the first people I wanted to tell were my parents. I felt like I owed it to them, and I was afraid they’d hear some other way. That’s a lot of what’s going through David’s head, this consideration of his family in his gay identity. It’s a lot of pressure. I ultimately went to a coming-out support group. I found a group of gay friends and you kind of find your chosen family and then that gives you the confidence and ability to tell your family. It was a long process for me. I didn’t come out until I was 25.
What do your parents think of the movie?
It’s weird. They knew what it was about. I remember telling them about the film when I was writing the screenplay. My mom was really silent and she was just like, “You know, for your next movie, you can make an action film or a comedy...” She didn’t stop me, which I took as a positive sign. They came to see the film at Sundance, and I think they were pleasantly surprised in that I bet their worst nightmare was that it was going to be like a gay porn. But instead it’s this very tender portrait of this Korean immigrant family that they could connect to a lot. I think that the applause at Sundance and the reception of the film was so great that they felt comforted. It was funny, after the movie, my mom came up to me and she was just like, “You’re so lucky you found [lead actor] Joe. He’s so great.” And then she would be like, “Your producers were wonderful.” “It looks wonderful,” but she never said anything about me (laughs). And that’s fine. That’s good enough.
Given its subject matter and explicitness, did you have trouble finding distribution for Spa Night?
I think we were really lucky for our domestic market. Marcus Hu at Strand is amazing and a champion for gay voices, Asian-American voices. He’s a queer man of color, himself. I felt really fortunate there. Internationally, we’ve had some awkwardness. We were told that a German distributor really loved the movie, but that he couldn’t buy it because German men don’t think Asian men are sexy. (Laughing) Literally, that was the statement. I was kind of shocked and so annoyed with it that I just kind of had to forget about it. It was trying to hide racism within business. “It’s not good for this market.” I find that 1) often untrue, and 2) really reductive.
And how are we supposed to combat racism, if not with examples that refute it?
That’s the thing about film, it’s this awkward balance between art and commerce. And feeling like if you only make decisions based on business that you’re not doing any justice to the art of the films and what they’re doing and what they can accomplish.
You’re just pandering.
You’re just pandering. You’re just making what you think people want. And then what happens is you’re only reacting. You’re never pushing, you’re never gonna be first. I think that’s an attitude that causes social stagnation. Things will always be the status quo. So if you want film to be this vehicle for social change, you need distribution companies, you need production companies, you need studios to believe in that and to go for it and to take risks. I knew that with Spa Night it was going to be difficult, but it’s exceeded expectations in many ways.
Do you feel pressure, being one of the lone gay Asian voices in American culture, now?
I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but there is responsibility. I have friends and I know of other filmmakers and actors of color that say, “I just want to be able to make my work.” And I agree, that’s something I strive for, but where we are in society now, if you don’t try and push society, if you don’t have some sort of responsibility to the communities that you’re a part of, then you’re kind of letting us down. In my bio, I say, “Andrew Ahn is a gay Korean-American filmmaker.” And people were like, “Oh, just take that out. Just say you’re a filmmaker.” And I was like, “No, I’m gonna keep saying these things until I don’t have to.” But for now, I think it’s really important. People say, “Your movie’s not just a gay movie.” I’m like, “But it is a gay movie.” I want that to be clear. I want it to be on Netflix under “gay films,” because 1) it’s how people can find it, and 2) it can push the genre to mean more.
If I have the privilege to be out and gay, then I’m gonna be really out and gay about it. It’s kind of wanting to help our community do the work.