Spa Hookups, Korean Parents, And Coming Out On Screen: Q&A With Filmmaker Andrew Ahn
I remember catching Andrew Ahn's short film Dol (First Birthday) at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2012. Having attended a few dol parties myself, I was familiar with the intimate cultural milieu of Ahn's film about a Korean-American family celebrating a child's milestone first birthday: the adorable little boy dressed in traditional costume, the dining table laden with Korean dishes, and, after the meal, the mat spread on the floor before the child, strewn with objects representing his future career paths. If he grabs the pen, he's meant to become a scholar; if he goes for the cash, he'll be a business mogul.
Ahn's protagonist in Dol, the young uncle of the birthday boy, is gay. Before the party, his boyfriend dutifully wraps a gift for the nephew, but understands that he isn't invited to celebrate with the family. Dol is a heartbreaking study in the tensions of a divided life. The film's protagonist, while not exactly joyless, quietly suffers a stifled existence in which his Korean-American and gay identities can't fully intersect. When the lights came up in the theater for the post-screening Q&A, I hastily wiped away tears.
An MFA graduate in film from the California Institute of the Arts, Ahn, 29, is now at work on his first feature-length narrative, Spa Night. The film treads similar ground as Dol, in that Ahn is once again exploring Korean-American and queer identities. This time, he'll give audiences a view into the underground culture of gay hookups in Korean spas in Los Angeles. I chatted with Ahn about life after Dol, which screened at more than 30 festival venues and won the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Narrative Short at Outfest: LA, and the inspiration and research behind Spa Night.
You actually cast members of your family in Dol. What was that like?
I had to cast my family because there was no way, with my resources, that I would be able to find a cast of 15 Korean actors. So, in that sense it was necessary. But it was also difficult because I didn't tell them what the film was about. They had no idea. In Dol, the main character is gay. The drama of the film is that he can't figure out how his gay and Korean identities live together. It was a bit of an ethical dilemma: to invite my family into the film, but not tell them what it's about.
In the coming out process, you live different levels of "outedness." At that time, I was very comfortable in my sexuality at school, in West Hollywood, with my friends. Making Dol was my way of equalizing my life. I want to be out completely. I knew the moment of truth was when I showed my family the film. I always knew it was going to be my way of coming out to them. I'd tried before, in many different ways. Having the conversation, or introducing them to my boyfriend. Things like that. But every time I had the opportunity, I kind of flaked. I realized it was because it all hinged on this jump-off-the-cliff feeling. Casting my family was like the running head start.
The film screened at Sundance, and went to all of these festivals, but the main goal was really just to show it to my parents. If I did that, that was a success for me. So the fact that it did even more, and made me come out to the world, because I was getting press, that was really liberating. It gave me a lot of confidence and direction. Like, yes, I want to make LGBTQ Korean-American films. This is where I'm meant to be.
Do you see yourself as a political filmmaker? Do you have a political agenda in making these kinds of films, in writing your characters?
I don't actually think my films are "message films," at least not in a direct way. They're political in that I'm thrusting upon an audience a human that they have to deal with, and in understanding these characters as people, as human beings, you're made to look at the world in a slightly different way. It's never my goal to force a point of view, but to show one.
Let's talk about Spa Night. How did you discover this culture of queer hookups in Korean spas?
I was out in West Hollywood, and a friend of mine told me about how he had a hot hookup at a Korean spa. And at first that was so shocking to me, because a Korean spa is, like, where I went with my dad when I was a kid. A gay hookup sounded so wrong there. It just didn't belong.
Going back to Korean spas as an adult, I see that it exists there. You see it happen. There's always going to be some slippage between the homosocial experience of men being naked, to the homoerotic. It happens in locker rooms. It exists if you look for it.
With Dol, I was exploring the intersection of homosexuality and Korean-American identity. There's the family celebration of the nephew's first birthday, and then there's the family at home, between my main character, his partner and his dog. With Spa Night, the intersection is the location. This is where gay and Korean cultures live together. I started developing the idea about a closeted Korean-American teenager using the Korean spa as a window. A familiar conduit to explore his sexuality.
I knew it was going to be a really difficult film to make, because I had to get access to the Korean community, at spas, in churches. In a lot of ways, it was going to be radical.
Why did it sound "wrong," hearing that your friend had a hookup in a Korean spa?
Korean spas felt sort of sacred, in a way. We went every New Year's to cleanse, like you had to have a clean body to start the year. It felt like church. It was a bonding thing I did with my family. And then I heard about the hookup culture. It had always been so easy for me to separate the two. And here they were totally in the same space. It was uncomfortable to hear that.
The film is a way for me to forge a queer Korean-American identity, to find these situations where the two cultures aren't separate, but they co-exist. It's this question of being whole. That for me is what causes the tension, and is the point of the film. Korean Americans, Asian Americans, are sexual beings, and some of them are gay.
Are Korean men having the hookups? Non-Koreans?
I would say at a lot of the spas where this is really popular, the clientele is 90 percent non-Korean. It's black, Latino, white. Every now and then you will see a Korean guy who looks like he might be looking. Whenever I've had to go to a Korean spa — and I've had to go to a ton of them for research, for location scouting for the film — no one ever thinks I'm there for any other reason than as a Korean person who showers. That's how I'm seen. I can tell. The spa manager can be kind of vigilant — if it's a white guy, he might kind of be suspicious. But if I'm there, it's like, "Oh, he's just a Korean guy."
[Outside the spa], there's a certain part of me that feels "American" by the way I dress, the way that I talk. But at the spa, you're not talking, and you're completely naked. I feel the most Korean that I ever feel, because it's my naked Korean body, in this Korean space. When you look at other people, you're seeing them naked, and the cues that you usually use to understand who a person is aren't there anymore. You have other cues. Tattoos, piercing, manscaping. It's another way of interacting.
How did you approach research for Spa Night?
Some of the research process was through online forums. There's an online forum for gay men who hook up in Korean spas in LA, stories about what they've done, if anyone's ever gotten caught, things like that. There was going to spas and seeing how a Korean culture of bathing and washing can live right alongside very erotic gay cruising.
"These are the challenges of being a queer Korean-American filmmaker, trying to make a queer Korean-American film. I understand why there are so many films about straight white people."
We talked to spas when we were trying to get permission to shoot, and when we talked about the content, a lot of spas were like, "No way. Nope." Actually, most of them said no. And then that's when I realized, again, that I'd have to withhold that information in order to get this done. It felt like Dol all over again, this question of ethics. I realized I had to hold on to this feeling of, "What I'm doing is going to be helpful to someone." If the only way to make this film is to withhold some information, I would have to do that.
It also made me angry, and sad, that these are the challenges of being a queer Korean-American filmmaker, trying to make a queer Korean-American film. I understand why there are so many films about straight white people. No one will complain or take issues. You want a location, you can have it. I lost actors because they were uncomfortable with the subject matter. These are the problems you face when you're making a film like this. This is probably the case with any kind of diverse cinema. There's something at stake, and there's going to be challenges.
What surprised you about the research? Did you discover anything you didn't expect?
There is a narrative of Korean parents, or Asian-American parents in general, being really hard on their children. Expecting a lot, wanting a lot, and if the children aren't succeeding, they get punished. But the more I thought about it, and talked to my friends about it, actually, what made it hard about meeting the expectations wasn't the fear of being punished. It was the fact that our families loved us. That they were so excited for us. And that was what made it nuanced and interesting.
If my main character's parents were a*******, I could see him just coming out to them by being like, "F**** you, I'm gay, and I'm getting out of here." But it's the fact that they love him so much, and that he loves them so much. You don't want to abandon them. You're going to have to bring them into your life in some way.
That was the biggest revelation for me, that all the stress I had as a teenager and young adult doesn't stem from being afraid that you're going to get hit; it's because I really wanted to live up to those expectations, to give that to my parents, but I don't know if I could. Especially as a gay man. Am I going to be able to give them grandchildren, in the way they want grandchildren? Am I going to have a family?
What was your relationship to LA's Koreatown growing up?
Koreatown was this place where my parents and grandparents could get away with not having to speak English. I only ever went to Koreatown when I was with family. It's interesting now that I can explore Koreatown as an adult, on my own. I'll be at a restaurant or bar now, and my gaydar goes off on another Korean guy. It exists! [Laughs] This community exists.
Now Koreatown's become so hip. That's what I find so fascinating about Korean spas — so many of my non-Korean friends love it. It's kind of strange, because for me it's so familiar, and also familial, but for other people it's a hip destination, like, "We're going to do a 'night out' in Koreatown."
I think that's why the underground culture of gay hookups is so interesting to me. It's complex, because it's a little bit of an abuse of the space. At the same time, as a gay man, I fully understand that gay sex is being pushed to these secret places. I know for a fact that many of the men who go to Korean spas to hook up are married to women. They're wearing wedding rings. There's something tragic about that, that this is how you're expressing your sexuality, and this is how you find sex.
That's a little bit of what I was trying to explore in the film, this question of "Why this space, why here?" These men who go to the Korean spas, it's different from the 20-somethings who are like, "Ktown's my hood." It's a very different way of interacting with Korean culture. I think for some of these men, it's not even about the fact that it's a Korean spa. It's just a place.
But your protagonist is Korean.
And that's what complicates it for him. For him, it can't just be a place to hook up. It is a Korean spa. That layer in his relationship to the space makes what he's doing extra tricky.
You made Dol as a way to come out to your family. Are you envisioning Spa Night will reveal something to your family, or to a wider audience?
My dad, when I first came out to him, said: "No, there's no gay Korean people. There's none." Spa Night is an opportunity to show Korean-Americans that gay Korean people exist. We're not all going out to WeHo [queer-friendly West Hollywood], we're not heathens you can ignore. We go to church with you. We love being Korean as much as you love being Korean. We value these traditions in our culture as much as you do.
There are gay Asian people out there, but I feel like they're very easily pushed away from the Korean-American, Asian-American community. Whether because they're campy, or they're only speaking in English — 75 percent of Spa Night is in Korean. My hope is that it helps Korean-Americans see that the community is diverse.
For a wider audience, it's that there are gay people who aren't white! [Laughs] That we can talk about homosexuality not just in a white context. That it's not just WeHo, it's also in Korean spas.
Ultimately, my character's going through this struggle of balancing identities. I think everyone has to balance identities. Whether you're a woman, Latino, you're American, international, all these different things everyone ends up juggling. That was my goal with Spa Night, that you would see this character as intensely gay and intensely Korean at the same time, and that you couldn't deny him of either of those things.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.