Jason Ooi 「Andrew Ahn Talks ‘Spa Night,’ ‘Doctor Strange’ Whitewashing, Asian & Gay Representation On Screen」

Posted on October 02, 2016
Joe Seo

Director Andrew Ahn came out to his parents as gay with a short film – after making them star in it. Since 「Dol (First Birthday)」 (which premiered at Sundance in 2012), he’s come a long way, with his first feature-length film 「Spa Night」 recently opening to critical acclaim. The film follows 18-year-old David (Joe Seo) coming to terms with his sexuality, his Asian-American ethnicity and his future, with the looming threat of college on the horizon, as he finds his desires at odds with those of his community and parents. Ahn tackles each subject with an immense and striking level of intimacy that makes it difficult not to connect with, or at least feel the weight of, each of the themes imposed on the main character. It is a confident, nuanced, and extremely personal film that marks the start of a promising career for Ahn.

What really struck me about the film at first was how personal it felt and how accurately it captured the insecurities of being young and Asian and gay.

The film might not be exactly autobiographical, but I do feel a kinship with the main character, David. He has these thoughts, feelings and fears in the film that I have felt in my life. Some of the specifics are really different – David is an only child, and he’s struggling academically; meanwhile, I went to college, and I have an older brother. But emotionally we’re very similar. I really think that personal film is interesting because you get a level of insight that you can only achieve by being that person.

How about the people in your family? How did they react to finding out you were gay?

I was expecting the worst from my family. When I came out to my family here, they were actually very supportive. It wasn’t 100% great – and that wasn’t an issue. There were things we needed to talk about and things we continue to talk about. I made it worse in my head, and I think David does too: A lot of his worries – this paranoia, this uncertainty – only really exist in his head, and it’s amazing how this can create conflict and torture someone. In many ways in the film, you don’t have a great sense as to whether or not David’s parents would disown him, but you do get the sense that he doesn’t want to disappoint them, and that’s the real source of the drama.

David’s character really stood out to me as a silent protagonist. Did anything influence your decision to not really give him a voice?

In my development of that character, I was thinking a lot about someone who felt a little stunted – who was physically a man with sexual desires, but emotionally and mentally still young. It is that tension that really catches him off guard. He is interested in and drawn to the gay cruising that happens at the spa, but he doesn’t quite have the capability to process it. I made sure that he wouldn’t be super-articulate and extroverted, [that] there’d be something about him that’s self-guarded and withdrawn. I still do think he’s a very active character, and that he makes choices, even if he isn’t interested in talking about them. That felt especially true for the type of character that I was interested in.

I also feel like the film is kind of quiet as a whole, unsentimental, in spite of what the subject matter or the coming-of-age genre would lead someone to believe. What led you to pursue that route?

It’s pretty funny actually – I was really surprised at how much dialogue was in the movie. I think it’s the most dialogue I’ve ever written in one of my scripts. I think it might just be my style. There’s also no score in the film. I think there’s something about silence that draws people into a movie and forces you to listen, instead of blasting you out. I think because David’s such a quiet character, if I had score or a lot of dialogue, you would lose him. I knew that if I wanted to tell this story about this particular kind of protagonist, I would have to cinematically adjust to him.

We tried a score at one point: My editor wanted to at least experiment with it, and I thought it was a terrible idea and I hated what he did, so we scrapped it. What I did talk about a lot with my sound designer was how to draw out the musical moments in the film. There’s the drip of the sauna, the karaoke song, the song that the Dad sings when he walks through Koreatown drunk. There are these moments, they just aren’t anything like the standard movie score.

You worked as a high-school counselor. Can you tell me a bit about that job, and how it may have influenced your characters?

When I took that job, I had already written multiple drafts of 「Spa Night」. Still, it was nice for me to just be around people who were the age that my character is. What I noticed was that there were always those super-high-achieving, really outgoing kids, but you also had those kids that didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do, and didn’t seem very academically inclined. I observed that it didn’t mean that these students weren’t interesting people, it just meant that they had other positive attributes – if they were artistic, or empathetic. I think these were the things I really appreciated about my work at the academy, and I think it really helped me humanize David by helping me understand what it was like to be caught in the middle, and to focus on other characteristics that weren’t always obvious.

I’m very curious about the backlash to the film, too, because it does deal with some very controversial topics.

The film is controversial. I feel like I did make the film in such a way that someone who is homophobic could feel a little bit of empathy for David and his family. If they don’t and decide to still judge the character, then at least they’ve seen the movie and have been confronted with a different perspective. I haven’t received much backlash but I am prepared for it. It’s going to be interesting, but for me, controversy comes with the opportunity to change minds, be productive, and bring awareness.

Another thing that really surprised me about the film – and I think that you wouldn’t be able to do something like this in a studio-produced film – was the film’s willingness to show male nudity.

In my head, I strategized from very early on that there would be a lot of nudity in the Korean, cultural spa. But the more it transformed into an erotic space, the more I would minimize the nudity, because I didn’t want it to be about the nudity. I wanted it to be about the character’s experience. I think that really helped a lot of the actors and extras, because whenever the nudity would get really risqué, we would really just stay on body parts and on faces.

You talk about the spa as a cultural phenomena. What is that like?

For me, the Korean spa has alway been a place about Korean ritual and tradition. It’s a family space. I used to go to the spa with my Dad, especially for the new year – you would get clean and scrub yourself. There’s something about the spa itself that makes me feel very Korean. There’s usually Korean radio and television playing, and lots of other Korean bodies, including my own, especially with all of the clothes that make me American stripped away. There’s something about that space that feels overwhelmingly a part of my Korean identity, that made it sound very wrong when I found out that gay men used it to hook up. But at the same time, because I am gay, it sounded kind of sexy. And it’s that intersection that got me really thinking about the location as a potential setting for a film that deals with the formation of a gay Korean-American identity.

I know recently in news and culture the representation of Asians and Asian-Americans in cinema has been very controversial. How do you feel about that racial tension surrounding filmmaking?

There are so many ways that I can answer this question. The first thing for me is that so much of the media dedicated to this topic of Asian-American representation in film and television has been focused on big Hollywood movies – things like the whitewashing of 「Doctor Strange」 by the casting Tilda Swinton – and I understand why it’s valuable and why we’re doing that sort of reporting. But to me, it’s also avoiding the Asian-American media that does exist. For me, independent film is an awesome opportunity for us to get more representation out there because we don’t have to wait for studio executives to change their mind about anything or give us the opportunity. We can give ourselves the opportunity and push for the stories that we want to see on the screen. I would really love it if films that already do show Asian-American characters could get a bigger platform.

There’s also a built-in racism in making films in our current society. If I had made a film about a white family with a white main character, I probably could have seen a thousand actors for the part – I probably could have talked to a couple big actors who could’ve helped me finance my movie. With 「Spa Night」, because the character was Korean, I saw less than a hundred actors for the part.

Thank God one of them was Joe Seo, because if had he not been there, we may never have had the actor for the film. The reason that there aren’t many actors is because there aren’t many roles, so that actors give up and think that it’s not a viable career. It causes this weird feedback loop. For me, 「Spa Night」 was also an opportunity to break that cycle. Could I inspire Asian Americans who were interested in acting to continue to pursue acting, so that a filmmaker in a few years could tell an Asian-American story because that actor decided to continue to follow their passion? There are definitely obstacles in place, and I felt like I had to try and overcome these obstacles because I felt like there was the opportunity to do more.

The film seems very much focused on outsiders. If you could say one thing to all of those teenagers who may feel alienated because of their race or sexual orientation, what would it be?

I think everyone balances different identities. For David, it’s his gay identity, his Asian-American identity, his class, his spirituality – all these different aspects of who he is are interacting inside of him. It makes it very difficult and specific to him. I hope that when people watch the movie, they realize that they are not alone in their struggles to balance the different specifics of who we are, and that balance is a difficult thing to achieve. It’s okay to feel like things are going wrong because it means that you’re growing and figuring it out. I just really want audiences to know that it’s okay to be a little sad. There are so many coming-of-age films that are just positive and life-affirming that it becomes hard to connect to. It’s like listening to sad music because sometimes you need to know that someone else is going through similar things too. I feel like 「Spa Night」 accomplishes that.