Darkly lit with long stretches of no dialogue, Spa Night adeptly captures the mood of its characters’ hopelessness. David (Joe Seo) is the only child of Korean American restaurant owners and still lives at home. His parents have high hopes for him, even though he isn’t much of an achiever. When the family restaurant has to suddenly close down overnight, it is on David’s shoulders to get a job to help support the family. Although his mother has aspirations for him to go to college, David seems listless. In fact, he seems downright depressed about his outlook.
He visits the University of Southern California to check out the school with a former friend from church, Eddie (Tae Song). Instead of getting a proper campus tour, college kids take him along with them on a karaoke bar-hopping excursion. David, who exhibits same-sex desire, comes away from the experience more confused than he was before—he doesn’t know how to react to his friend’s roommate being openly gay, he backs away at a chance to kiss his friend Eddie during a drinking game, and later when he is intoxicated, he can’t stop staring at Eddie in the restroom. David is not only repressed, he lives in a subculture that doesn’t seem to have clear cut rules about his same-sex desires.
The business gone, his mother lands a job at another restaurant while his dad spirals into alcoholism. David finds a job at a Korean bathhouse that he visited with the USC students. It doesn’t take him long to discover the spa plays host to a discreet sex scene. Among the men at the spa, there is an unspoken lingo communicated through eye contact, body language, and gestures. Perhaps the most curious thing about internalized homophobia is how each man has his own code of sexuality, his own limitations for what constitutes gay sex. To some, manual and oral sex are okay, but kissing is not. To others, only receiving and not giving is permissible. Of course, no one is having an open discussion about this.
As caretaker of the spa, David sees what goes on. He starts to put together how these encounters work and where the men go to have sex. David begins to help the men find spaces where they can have their privacy by posting an out of order sign on the sauna or hanging a towel over a light fixture to darken the nap room for them.
Spa Night is bleak, which will surely turn off some viewers. Others may appreciate that the film’s tone suits David, a young man who may never be able to live an openly gay life because he lives in a home that doesn’t accept it. His life may be going in the direction of his father, a failed man who now drinks himself to sleep every night.
The subject of the effects of cultural repression is also explored in the recent film Moonlight, and Spa Night is a good, though not as complex, companion piece to that film.