The impending theatrical release of SPA NIGHT represents a victory of a sort for its director and screenwriter, Los Angeles-born and raised Andrew Ahn. Since his auspicious 2011 debut with ANDY, about a boy and his adventures in a suburban shopping mall, Ahn solidified his status as a director to watch by the release the following year of FIRST BIRTHDAY (DOL), about the inner struggles of a young, gay Korean American man who pines for the love that his family showers upon his infant nephew for his first birthday celebration. Distinguished by its sharply-drawn distillation of Korean American families and community, FIRST BIRTHDAY was an award-winning hit upon its debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and set the stage for SPA NIGHT, which similarly offers little-seen depictions of one of Los Angeles’ most distinct communities.
In advance of its July 11 Los Angeles Premiere screening at Outfest 2016, Visual Communications staffmember Abraham Ferrer chatted with Andrew about the making of his film and the distinctions that come with creating a work that straddles multiple communities, reflective of his own identity as a gay Korean American.
ABRAHAM FERRER: It’s unbelievable that it’s been almost TWO YEARS since we sat down and talked about SPA NIGHT here at Visual Communications for the official launch of your successful Kickstarter campaign. How time flies, huh? Talk about that journey a minute — how does it feel to get to the “finish line” with a feature-length narrative when so very many with equally compelling stories simply fail to realize their own films…ANDREW AHN: I feel so fortunate that so many people believed in SPA NIGHT! It was sheer force of collective will that allowed this project to come to fruition. I could not have made this film without our investors, our Kickstarter backers, my collaborators, friends, and family. I truly believe that film is not just an art medium or an industry; it is a community. If I think of filmmaking as community building, the emphasis moves away from the final product and toward the process. It becomes less daunting, less lonely. It’s a process meant to be shared and enjoyed with others.
Since no one who makes films ever pops out of the womb a born filmmaker, let’s start this chat by recounting how an English major at an Ivy League university — a native Angeleno going to school on the East Coast, no less! — discovers a love for the cinematic arts.
I actually started off as a biology major at Brown University; I eventually double majored in both biology and English, but I remember I was dead set on taking film classes from my very first year. I took the prerequisite film theory classes necessary to get into the production classes and then I just made as much work as I could, shooting miniDV and 16mm film. I made these small essay films, just trying to figure out how this medium worked.
I think film captured my attention because I was bad at it! It was so different from the rest of my entire academic history; the challenge of it felt like a curiosity that could sustain me. By the time I was about to graduate from Brown, I felt like I had just scratched the surface. This is what drew me to the California Institute of the Arts.
So, why CalArts? What did you get out of the experience that was more valuable or unique than studying film at, say, UCLA, USC, or NYU?
For me, CalArts was the right place at the right time. Graduate film school isn’t for everyone, but CalArts really helped me develop as an artist and as a human being. The environment, the faculty, my peers, and the focus on personal filmmaking — it all helped me figure out what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it.
Without my CalArts experience, I don’t think we could have made SPA NIGHT. CalArts taught me how to be resourceful and turn your limitations into expressive choices. This was at the heart of how SPA NIGHT came to be.
Let’s talk a bit about SPA NIGHT. At first blush, this story is the exact polar opposite from the web series and feature film KTOWN COWBOYS, and so much more an opposite from the “Jersey Shore” knock-off web series K-TOWN of a couple of years back. Were you familiar with these past efforts? I wonder: is SPA NIGHT, in all its muted LGBT-ness, an effort to essay a more “real” or “honest” Los Angeles Koreatown to the uninitiated viewer?
I didn’t watch much of K-TOWN, but I did watch the KTOWN COWBOYS feature. In fact, I saw it at LAAPFF in 2015! It’s very important to me to support other Korean American films and filmmakers, because the plurality of stories is key to humanizing us as a community. Some of the residents of Koreatown drink like they do in KTOWN COWBOYS and others cruise at spas like they do in SPA NIGHT! We are a diverse community! I really hope no one watches SPA NIGHT and considers it to be the definitive Koreatown film. It is my very specific perspective.
I wanted to take a more grounded approach to showing Koreatown in SPA NIGHT, one that felt authentic to me. For those unfamiliar with Koreatown, I really just plop them down into the various locations of the film: Korean spas, a Korean church, a golf range, the city streets. I wanted an audience to experience Koreatown without too much explanation.
I admire that in SPA NIGHT, the blossoming of a gay identity for your lead character David Cho occurs within a maelstrom of family and economic tension, academic pressures, intergenerational conflicts, and an overall struggle to achieve some form of an American Dream. The way you address “acculturation” and the trappings that come with achieving that “dream” really expands what can easily be narrow-cast by others as simply an “LGBT” film…
As a gay Korean-American man, I think I’ve grown up afraid that people will reduce me to some stereotype, defined by either my ethnicity or my sexuality. For this reason, my ultimate goal for making SPA NIGHT was to give this character a strong sense of humanity. David Cho had to feel “real.”
I believe it’s impossible to create a three-dimensional character in film by isolating one aspect of their personhood. So, in developing the film, I focused on how David’s sexuality intersects with his other identities — as a Korean person, as an American, as a son, as the son of immigrants. I believe this makes David’s struggle more complex, yet more grounded and more easily understood. We all struggle to balance the different identities in our lives in order to feel whole.
Let me tell you what for me was the most lasting scene in SPA NIGHT: in various exterior sequences of the film, we see David jogging through the streets of Koreatown, in stationary shots set on a tripod — I see those as very contemplative moments where I can FEEL his inner turmoil. Yet at one crucial point, David is sprinting up Western Avenue — perhaps for the ONLY time in the entire movie — as the camera tracks his sprint until, as he crosses the street, the camera stops as David moves out of frame. I think that David’s growing-up (or “queering” process, I can’t tell which) is now moving so quickly that the camera can no longer follow his story. What a powerful approach to David’s character development!
Cinematographer, co-producer, and friend Ki Jin Kim and I talked a lot about [this] sequence. We talked a lot about the running in the film in general! There’s something about running that feels really poetic in David’s life. It’s something that he has complete control over in his life. He can decide when to start, when to stop, and where to go.
Without spoiling too much, the sequence [you described] goes back to my desire to have David feel like a real person. In this way, that sequence represents David breaking out of the narrative of SPA NIGHT; he speeds through the frame in an act of rebellion to show that he exists in the world outside the film.
Jumping back to the aforementioned KTOWN COWBOYS and K-TOWN web series, I’m aware that select members of your cast were in one or the other entities in addition to SPA NIGHT — for instance, Angie Kim, who had a pivotal role in KTOWN COWBOYS, also appears in your film. Now that SPA NIGHT is gaining traction on the film festival circuit, I wonder if your cast has had occasion to compare these different portraits of K-Town, the community? I know that question may be unfair, but hey, I gotta ask.
I haven’t spoken with my cast about these various portraits of Koreatown, but I have talked to other people about it. For me, the more films about Koreatown, the better. I want to see how other people see it, especially people from the inside who can portray the nuance and complexity of this unique space. It’s a large, diverse community filled with stories about race, class, and relationships that are rarely told on screen.
I love that Angie Kim stars in both KTOWN COWBOYS and SPA NIGHT. I think it’s a true testament to her talent and versatility as an actress! Also, I find it interesting that although KTOWN COWBOYS and SPA NIGHT share a common location and similar themes, the films are very different. It just goes to show you how perspective changes everything.
How do you yourself see SPA NIGHT vis-à-vis other films that have been released about K-Town and its denizens?
As I was making SPA NIGHT, I wasn’t super-conscious of how else Koreatown has been depicted on film. Instead, I was reacting to general notions or stereotypes of the Korean American community. For me, SPA NIGHT gets at this subsection of the population that has to struggle; so often, the only narrative of the Korean American community that gets told is one of success, the model minority myth. The perfect SAT score, the Harvard-bound kids. That’s what gets written about in the newspapers. That’s what is celebrated from within the community.
With SPA NIGHT, I wanted to offer another narrative, one that’s much more human and, in fact, more common. I wanted to show the resilience of a family under stress. It’s really focused on how family structure and relationships are so valued within our community.
The way I see it, SPA NIGHT is NOT strictly an “LGBT” film, nor for that matter a strictly “Asian American” film. While stopping just short of invoking the “universal” label that seems to render everything coming out of Hollywood these days as coming from an homogenized, cookie-cutter mentality, I’d have to liken SPA NIGHT to a modern-day piece of urban Americana, which invites much more nuanced readings. Agree? Disagree?
Agreed! I have always said that SPA NIGHT is as American as a cowboy western film (despite the fact that a few of those were made by Italians!). I think it’s important that American independent film reflect the true diversity of the country we live in. I haven’t thought about it much, but I do think there’s something interesting to be said about SPA NIGHT being an urban story. Cities are diverse, the meeting places of so many different people. Cities are also the destination of ambition, places for people to go who want more. This is really at the heart of SPA NIGHT.
I do want to clarify though that I have no qualms with the labels LGBT film or Asian American film! I want SPA NIGHT to be a part of both of these cinema traditions.
Now that SPA NIGHT is set to begin a theatrical roll-out beginning in the fall, what do you hope will be the big “take-away” for audiences who are finally able to see your film and discover what all that “buzz” from Sundance was all about?
My hope is that audiences feel less alone in their struggle to balance different identities. For David, it’s the struggle to balance his Korean American identity with his bourgeoning gay identity. But we all juggle different roles in our lives; we separate ourselves into different personas. I hope SPA NIGHT can inspire people to break down those barriers within ourselves so that we live a more complete, holistic life.
To date, it’s been a long road for you: from ANDY and FIRST BIRTHDAY (DOL), to SPA NIGHT. While I’m aware that you are already working on a follow-up, I have to believe that somewhere, somehow, what Andrew Ahn really wants to do next is direct…a comedy! What say you, sir?
Funny you say that! Some of my favorite moments in SPA NIGHT are the comedic moments. I love puke. I love selfies. That said, I think comedy is really hard! I think it’s really tricky to make things funny without resorting to cheap jokes. My hope for my career is that I can have fun and challenge myself as a director. I want to try new things and tackle different genres, like Ang Lee or Todd Haynes. However, I always want my work to have my stamp on it, this hard to pinpoint but undeniable quality of being something I directed.