Filmmaker Explores Steamy World of Korean Spas in Indie Movie 'Spa Night'

The gay Korean-American director talks about a venue that is sacred to some and a means of hooking up to others.

A scene from the movie 'Spa Night.'
Courtesy of Metrograph

NEW YORK – Korean spas, often located in the heart of American Koreatowns, offer an escape from the daily grind. To Korean American patrons they are much more than that: a communal space, a link to ancient tradition and a site for bonding.

But in recent years, the 24-hour businesses have been attracting a different clientele, as non-Korean gay men seek love in their steamy rooms. The culture clash is the focus of “Spa Night,” a poetic and emotional indie film, which has won praise from the Sundance Film Festival and American film critics.

The film centers on David, a young Korean American struggling with an uncertain future. All his friends have left for college, while he has stayed behind to work at the family restaurant in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. After his parents’ American dream begins to crumble, David finds a job at the local spa, where he discovers a bustling cruising scene. David, still coming to terms with his own sexual identity, is torn between two worlds. The Korean employees and customers of the spa see him as one of their own, a dutiful son trying to help his parents, while the non-Korean gay customers avoid him fearing he will alert management or police to act against them.

“A Korean spa is very much a part of Korean tradition. It is the place where people go to purify themselves and rejuvenate, and when I found out that it is being used in L.A. for gay hookups it seemed sacrilegious,” explained Andrew Ahn, director of “Spa Night.”

Ahn said he decided to set the film at the spa because “as someone gay and Korean, to have both parts of my identity coexist [in the spa] really fascinated me.

Andrew Ahn, the director of 'Spa Night.'
Mitch Dao

“The spa serves as a social space in Korean culture. Families go there to relax together; there is the men’s side and the women’s side, so it is also a site of bonding by gender. Especially here in Los Angeles, there are a lot of Korean spas, and my father would take me every year, to start the year fresh. It is very much associated with my idea of what it means to be a Korean man,” Ahn said.

Hints of the hookup scene at these spas occasionally seep into American tabloids in the form of tidbits about closeted Hollywood celebrities spotted in the steam rooms. The phenomenon was the subject of a controversial memoir “You’ll Never Spa in this Town Again,” by Robert Randolph. In 2012, John Travolta, who was mentioned frequently in the book, sued the author for libel.

“Spa Night” offers the audience a rare glimpse of the Korean community’s perspective on the transformation of their businesses into gay havens.

In the film, David is unsure whether the Korean spa owner is aware of the cruising going on at his establishment. Ahn said that this ambivalence reflects the silence around the issue in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. “It is fascinating as many of the owners of the Korean spa, where gay men go to cruise, know exactly what is going on, yet they turn a blind eye because it supports their business,” he said.

“I’m guessing half of their clients are gay men looking to hook up, but if they crack down on it, they would lose so many customers.”

The culture of silence surrounds not only pickups but homosexuality in general, still very much a taboo topic among Korean Americans.

“The Korean American community is very Christian. I grew up in the church – this is where my family used to meet people. It was not only a place of worship, but also a social space, a place to do business, a place where you make connections,” said Ahn. “But it is more than that. The biggest wave of emigration from Korea was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and in some ways the Korean American community is trapped in the norms of this era. It is so focused on the traditional structure of the family – the father, mother, and children – that anything that deviates even a little bit from that, even adoption, becomes very difficult to talk about.”

American film critics raved about the movie, praising not only the unique perspective, but its universal appeal.

“It would be easy to categorize this cool, exquisitely observant first feature ... as a gay movie. But it is much more. The film is a contemplation of the loneliness, tension and anxiety of outsiders pursuing a piece of the American dream,” The New York Times said.

Korean American critics, rarely represented in Hollywood, have also embraced the film. “So far the reaction has been very positive,” noted Ahn. “There was one person at a Q&A who seemed a bit angry at how the Korean community was presented, but I think that ultimately the honesty of the film will make people see beyond the parts of the film that make them uncomfortable.”