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[Herald Interview] 'Spa Night' director opens up about gay experience

JEONJU, North Jeolla Province -- Director Andrew Ahn came to Korea to spark a conversation.

His film, “Spa Night,” depicts David, a second-generation Korean-American working with his parents at their Korean restaurant. When the restaurant closes, David surreptitiously works at a Korean spa -- instead of studying to enter university -- to help the family. There he notices for the first time the spa’s role in secretive homosexual hookups, just as he begins considering his own identity.

“I hope that this film can bring light to an issue (homosexuality) that doesn’t get talked about so much in Korean culture,” Ahn said.

Korean-American director Andrew Ahn (JIFF)
Korean-American director Andrew Ahn (JIFF)

The director was recently in Seoul and at the Jeonju International Film Festival seeking Korean distribution for his first feature film. The Korea Herald sat down with him at the festival on May 3. 

“What’s really special about screening here at Jeonju is that this is the country that my parents left to have me. ... They gave up their life here,” Ahn said. “My family here in Korea, they gave up their brothers and sisters and sons and daughters to America. ... I hope watching this film for Korean audiences ... you understand as a second-generation Korean-American, I’m very thankful for what you’ve given me.” 

Ahn hit the film festival scene in 2012 with “Dol,” portraying the Korean customary celebration of a child’s first birthday. The movie, though, was really intended for an audience of two: He made it to come out to his parents as gay.

“Dol” premiered in competition at the highly selective Sundance Film Festival, where he made connections that eventually allowed him to make his first feature film and debut it at this year’s Sundance in January. “Spa Night” was picked to compete in the domestic competition despite the film’s dialogue mostly being Korean. 

A scene from “Spa Night” (JIFF)
A scene from “Spa Night” (JIFF)

The director’s search for convincing Korean and Korean-American actors who could both speak Korean well enough and “carry the parts” -- rare in Hollywood -- led him to actress Kim Hae-rry, who had returned to Korea to care for her mother after several years in New York’s theater world. Ahn would soon send Kim the entire script for the movie -- written only in English. 

“A lot of very complicated things mixed into one script,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “I couldn’t let it go.”

With the help of the actors and production staff, Ahn set about changing the script to Korean, working to find the most natural expressions for the characters.

“In some ways (after translating the dialogue to Korean) it got sadder,” Ahn said.

“Once we were shooting the film, and especially in the edit, the family, the parents -- it’s so much the heart of the movie,” Ahn added. “I’m glad that ‘Spa Night’ isn’t a gay sex movie. It’s the story about the Korean-American immigrant family.”

A scene from “Spa Night” (JIFF)
A scene from “Spa Night” (JIFF)

Unlike the winner of this year’s Korean Film Competition at the Jeonju film fest -- lesbian romance “Our Love Story” -- Ahn did not set out to tell a story of first love. Nor is “Spa Night” about David coming out to his family, as his story is further fraught with the taboo nature of its setting.

“He’s not even ready for love,” Ahn said about main character David. “It’s too typical if a coming-out story is (a romance) and it’s super positive.”

“I think there’s difficulties,” Ahn added. “I think the spa is an interesting location because there’s this kind of secretive, almost shameful, taboo element to what’s happening there. But it’s also like you need that sort of space in order to gain the confidence to be that person outside of that space.”

So far, Ahn said, community response for “Spa Night” has “all been very positive.” But with the movie due for its release in the U.S. in the fall and the audience widening, Ahn is aware this could change.

“That’s why I wanted to make this film with as much heart as possible,” the director remarked. “I kind of dare someone to be like, ‘Well, David’s going to go to hell.’ ... He’s such a good person. He cares so much about his family.”

As for the Korean theatrical release of “Spa Night?”

“We’re hoping,” Ahn said.

By Kevin Lee Selzer (