In this installment of our regular series on gems you might have missed that are now widely available on streaming services, Tanner talks about a quiet masterpiece of queer cinema, Spa Night.
Even looking on as an outsider from a multi-generation white family, this remarkable film feels personal to me. I married a first generation child of Chinese immigrants, and the continuous redefinition of familial boundaries as the young bring home something unexpected, every day, seems quite unique to the immigrant experience. I’ll never understand how parenting feels, beyond caring for nieces and nephews and pets, so I certainly can’t imagine how disorienting it must seem to bring up a tiny alien in an alien land. First generation children, then, are forced to play cultural and linguistic ambassadors, living in two countries, thinking and speaking differently in each, constantly having to explain the oddities of one to the other. These ambassadors are remarkable people.
This is the story of a difficult transition in the life of one such remarkable kid. David (Joe Seo), born to Korean parents who moved to LA in search of security and opportunity for their boy, lives at home and works at their restaurant, even while they insist that he follow his friends off to university. He’s clearly always prioritized his family’s work, and didn’t achieve the test scores he needed in high school to move on to a university education. When his parents’ restaurant is forced to close, the future suddenly feels much closer than it once did and David is forced to consider painful decisions, including finally moving away from home even as financial fear is tearing his parents apart.
Spa Night puts so much care into the drawing of these characters and their lives, that I am struck by the delicacy with which it deploys its A-story: David is gay, and has only just begun to allow himself to experience attraction, much less share his emerging identity with his family. Sexual self-discovery is so different for everyone, and while the film may be faulted for loading so much drama onto it when we want to believe that coming out to oneself (and our loved ones) should be joyous, the fact is that many meet the realization with pain, and with self-disgust.
David’s self-discovery is of course telescoped into 90 minutes, and he seems overly surprised and dismayed as a result. This softens the emotional impact of his realization somewhat and would strain believability in a lesser film. He is an American kid exposed to American media, he has a diverse peer group left over from high school that is clearly wide open to sex and drink; why then is he so naive that he is stunned by the idea of men living and loving together, of public sex, of intoxication, of adults who allow themselves pleasure? I’d answer that his behavior is for show; He over-sells his surprise because he is desperately afraid that he will be found out. His paranoia colors his interactions with his friends, and the film follows his perspective beautifully, projecting a suggestion of villainy onto them. Joe Seo plays David with tremendous reserve, his internal life is not easy to read, but his fear is clear.
The film balances so many complex emotional threads and character journeys, and does so with a near lack of melodrama. It does overdo blunt self pity near the end but that’s a nitpick, particularly given how gorgeously it refuses to conclude with an answer. There is no arithmetic to David’s life. There never is, for any of us, or at least no math that we can understand. This is a very fine film that can only help contribute much-needed empathy, particularly during this awful American moment.
Spa Night is now available to watch on US Netflix and other major streaming services