Gay and Korean/American
David Cho (Joe Seo) is an adolescent on the verge of manhood. He lives in a tight-knit, traditional home in the heart of Koreatown, Los Angeles with his first-generation parents. David worked at the family restaurant but business was slow and the restaurant was forced to close. His mother, Soyoung, found a job as a waitress, but his unemployed father, Jin, began a downward spiral and as this happens, tension builds in the home.
To please his mother, David pretends to go to SAT classes but secretly has taken a job at a Korean spa to help his family make ends meet. At the spa, he discovers an underground world of gay sex that both scares and excites him. As David explores his sexuality, his family life crumbles, forcing him to reconcile his own desires with his parents’ hopes, dreams, and expectations.
Joe Seo gives an incredible performance as David, a young man dealing with sexual awakening. This is writer/director Andrew Ahn’s debut as a director and his story of himself as a closeted Korean-American youth who is not a boy yet not quite a man .The film focuses on a close knit family involved in a economic crisis that forces them to adapt for an unplanned scenario and Ahn begins with characters facing a tenuous future. But Ahn’s film is more than that— it’s a hopeful narrative of a young man awakening to his sexuality via the activities he sees and experiences after taking a position at a local male only Korean Night Spa. The film explores the intersections of two particular communities.
The circumstances involving the Korean spas as known gay cruising areas in contemporary Los Angeles is not new, although Ahn may be the first to directly address this as a necessary evil by owners and a problem for heterosexual clients. Technically, sexual activities at these establishments are illegal, and considering legal bathhouses for gay men do exist in several areas throughout Los Angeles this situation speaks to the tempting power of the taboo. The setting provides a unique coming-of-sexual-age scenario for David who sees this world very close to him.
David’s situation is a familiar one but his pressures are amplified by his heritage. The film captures that period of growing up when one begins to understand that the world isn’t what it was thought to be and one defines himself from some power within.
While this is a somewhat subdue look at coming out in the Korean-American community, it brings home a story with something for everyone. It was shot on real Koreatown locations and features mostly Korean dialogue, it represents a valuable cultural artifact, despite its limited commercial prospects. This is one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant immigrant communities, taking place in the Korean restaurants, churches, karaoke bars and bathhouses found there.
Ahn’s highly personal story (developed via the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab) invents a timid protagonist in the relatively extroverted Ahn’s place. Painfully shy at times, David recognizes his desires which we see in his stolen glances in the steam or naked selfies, yet he can’t quite find the nerve to share. He does not have even a single example of a gay man in his life. To complicate his journey, he chose an inopportune moment to investigate his sexuality but then when is the right moment?
David is torn between his sense of filial responsibility and the apathy he shows toward the life his parents have chosen for him. This is not queer cinema’s traditional coming-out narrative. We assume his gayness isn’t nearly as important within the scope of the film as giving David a chance to establish an independent identity from his parents and the expectations of the conservative community around him.
Gay or straight, practically anyone can relate to the dynamic between David’s mom and Mrs. Baek, a friend from church, who indiscreetly brags that her son Eddie (Tae Song) is currently enrolled at USC, suggesting that David visit him there. Despite the fact his parents are spending a small fortune on SAT-prep classes, David isn’t so keen on the idea of college, although the 24 hours spent with Eddie (which begins as a flirty co-ed outing, but ends with an overnight visit to a male-only spa) gets David’s fantasies moving.
He notices a “help wanted” sign at the spa’s front desk, and behind his parents’ backs, applies for the job. He finds an adoptive father in the spa manager (Ho Young Chung), who also holds David to a high standard. Allowed to use the facilities as often as he likes, David quickly picks up on the strange, silent ritual that passes between the spa’s gay patrons, who check each other out in the open areas, then seek privacy for touching and more in the steam or upstairs sleeping room.
Cruising is a difficult dynamic succeeds partially but the film is more concerned more with David’s bystander curiosity than the sophisticated nonverbal seduction going on around him. Then again, Ahn doesn’t aim to sensationalize. Even though the film is more comfortable with nudity than most American films, the prospect that gay hookups might happen where others go to bathe is shameful and virtually unspoken.
David eventually does cross the line with a customer, after which the film forces him to scrub himself raw in the shower, followed by an elaborate formal apology to his boss. Ahn also includes the stories of how David’s parents came to America and everything they went through, but withholds the explosive confrontation of coming out to them. I see the film serving as an homage to the sacrifices first-generation immigrants made in order that their children could achieve their full potential in the States. This takes the idea of pride far past David’s gay identity.