Body after body unfurls across the screen with ease in Andrew Ahn’s Sundance premiere “Spa Night.” The beautifully lensed drama is, like its protagonist, compelled and often obsessed by the human shape and form, and Ahn’s film artfully uses the physical to tell a mostly standard issue coming-of-age story with style. Joe Seo stars as Korean-American teen David, divided between his desires to please his straitlaced immigrant parents (Youn Ho Cho and a particularly wonderful Haerry Kim) and a burgeoning sexuality that places him at odds with not just his family, but everyone and everything else in his life.
The film opens during a family visit to a Korean spa, as the camera quietly observes a dutiful David, tasked with helping his father Jin (Cho) scrub clean after a soak and a steam. The two are clearly close, and when they meet up David’s mother Soyoung (Kim), the tight-knit nature of the family is made even more apparent. David is entering his final year of high school, but Soyoung can’t help but gently rib him about finding a nice Korean girl to settle down with and start a family (well, when the time is right). As David’s eyes sweep over a handsome fellow spa-goer, he haltingly asks his parents what they would think about him marrying someone different, perhaps a white girl. It becomes clear that David is not at all interested in marrying a nice Korean girl (or, it seems, any kind of girl at all).
He is, however, very interested in keeping his parents happy. As Jin and Soyoung’s fortunes begin to change — financial troubles plague the family, ultimately leading to David’s parents having to close up their long-cherished restaurant and scrap for minimum-wage jobs elsewhere — the mostly wordless David shuffles through what appears to be a very lonely life. David’s interests are minimal, and his obsession with bodies — including his own, as evidenced by his constant working out and a preoccupation with taking naked selfies in his bathroom mirror — casts a shadow over every facet of his life.
David’s parents are much more sharply drawn than David himself, and though Ahn’s script is occasionally blunt with Jin’s journey after the heartbreaking loss of the family restaurant, Soyoung’s story is often the most resonant and finely acted. Seo’s best work comes when he’s put opposite his big-screen parents, and “Spa Night” is the rare coming-of-age story that mostly engages when it’s documenting the domestic side of David’s life. The immigrant experience may be paramount to both Jin and Soyoung, but David’s desire to please his parents is a universal emotion, and one that “Spa Night” excels at conveying.
That’s not to stay that David doesn’t get a chance to have some fun, as a second-act sequence that sees the shy teen trundled off to a local college to shadow the son of a family friend unleashes the kind of youthful high jinks and energy more typically associated with the genre. While visiting the freewheeling Eddie (Tae Song) at USC, David gets a taste of the kind of freedom that awaits him once he leaves home. His parents might be obsessed with his getting into a good college because of the future it promises, but David is eager to experience the immediate pleasures of a life beyond their reach. As David, Eddie and various pals cavort across campus and, yes, back to another Korean spa, Seo is finally allowed to open himself up to the possibilities of being himself — and even that is shot down by a few well-placed glares from Eddie.
While the official synopsis of “Spa Night” points to David’s eventual employment at a spa as the film’s primary focus, that part of the story doesn’t unfold until at least half of the 90-minute film has already meandered through various aspects of his crumbling family and his burgeoning battles with his sexuality. When David does finally start working at a local Korean spa, he discovers an entirely new world tucked away just out of sight from the saunas and steam rooms, filled with male patrons who engage in various sexual acts, seemingly free of worry.
Yet even in the cozy confines of this private world, David continues to struggle to let his true self shine. Although Seo and Ahn are able to tap into David’s confusion and agony — especially when filtered through the lens of his damningly hopeful parents — there’s never much more to David (or his story) than that, and his character remains woefully opaque to the film’s very last shot, one that ambitiously refuses to leave the audience with any easy answers while also keeping David at a unreachable distance, one even the most artfully lensed body can’t quite touch.
“Spa Night” opens in limited release on Friday, August 19.