Starring Joe Seo. In English and Korean, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
The best Korean-language film made in the USA in recent years, Spa Night is also one of the most assured debut features of this decade. With only a couple of shorts under his belt, young writer-director Andrew Ahn manages to tell an immigrant-specific and universally compelling coming-of-age story.
It’s also a coming-out story, although sexuality is just one of many arenas yet to be explored by teenager David Cho, played with thoughtful hesitation by the everyguy-ish Joe Seo. Fresh out of high school, David helps around the restaurant run by his anxious mom (Korean-American TV veteran Haerry Kim) and stolid dad (newcomer Youn Ho Cho) in L.A.’s sprawling Koreatown—itself a character in the well-grounded tale. But the joint is going down, and pressure increases for their only child to score big on his SATs, which this otherwise Good Son has been neglecting.
Subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in class, gender, and ethnicity mark everything here, as when the taciturn lad is pushed into shadowing the assimilated, USC–
attending son (Tae Song) of a well-to-do family friend. This leads to more vomiting than studying. But their big night out also takes David to the men-only bathhouse where he snags a part-time job, ostensibly to help the family (he never tells them) but also to find himself.
Since David speaks passable Spanish with restaurant suppliers, it’s somewhat surprising that this doesn’t come up among the “bad hombres” who keep returning to the spa. In any case, Ahn and cinematographer-producer Ki Jin Kim unfold events with sublime restraint. The episodic structure and lack of soundtrack music—other than what’s found in dorm rooms and karaoke bars—may appear haphazard to some viewers. But the movie is packed with dramatic inner rhymes and startling colour shifts that convey the challenges and pleasures of breaking away from your parents, even if—especially if—you love them.