Friday, August 19, 2016

Spa Night: Teen Angst in Koreatown

If you know you’re going to be wrestling with your sexuality, you might as well get paid for it. Essentially, that is the decision David Cho makes when he takes a part-time job at an all-male spa in Koreatown. It draws traditional clients from the Korean-American community, who see the health spa as a place for a good scrub and the latest gossip, as well as multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers, who frequent the establishment to quietly prospect for sexual encounters. Cho has a foot in both worlds, which causes him considerable inner turmoil throughout Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (trailer here), which opens today in New York, at the Metrograph.

Cho is gay (most likely), but he is only just starting to be honest with himself and he is not about to come out of the closet with his traditional Korean immigrant parents anytime soon. Rather inconveniently, this is not his most pressing problem. Cho always assumed he would be a good son by taking over the family restaurant, but when it shutters due to his father’s mismanagement, it leaves his future in a state of limbo. Suddenly, his parents’ expectations change drastically. Despite their precarious financial position, they expect him to become an overnight academic achiever, who can score a scholarship to USC. Unfortunately, he does not have the necessary grades and test scores, nor do his parents have the money for cram school, but they enroll him anyway.

Although Spa Night has frequently been positioned as a sexual coming of age story, it is really more about the disconnect between first and second generations within immigrant families. Sexual identity just happens to be a conspicuous wedge to potentially divide them. Yet, what makes the film so poignant is the compassion Cho shows for his problematic parents: his mother Soyoung tenaciously clinging to her dignity and his father Jin slowly succumbing to shame and desperation.

In any event, it is easy to see why Joe Seo won the Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance for his lead performance. He avoids all the easy clichés, playing Cho as a confused but ever so human and humane plugger. He also has the perfect physicality, looking simultaneously nebbish and bulked up. He comes across as a man between worlds in every sense. Both Haerry Kim and Youn Ho Cho thoroughly humanize Soyoung and Jin Cho.

Granted, we basically know where this Theodore Dreiser-esque tale of family tribulation is headed every step of the way, but the maturity and fundamental decency of the performances still makes it feel fresh. It is a sad story, but it is not bereft of hope. (After the first twenty minutes, most viewers will have the same realization: this kid needs to move to New York ASAP). Recommended for those who appreciate a coming of age story with economic and sexual identification dimensions, Spa Night opens today (8/19), at the Metrograph.