Filmmaker Andrew Ahn says he totally understands why so many movies are made about straight white people. His life would have been a lot easier if he had taken that route.
Ahn is the director of Spa Night, a new movie about a Korean American fresh out of high school who begins to experiment with his sexuality at a Korean spa in Los Angeles. And while he managed to produce a surprisingly intimate look at diversity within the Korean community, Ahn's experience making the film shows the sheer difficulty of bringing new stories to the screen.
Ahn’s film is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this Sunday, where it’s one of 16 contenders in the “U.S. Dramatic” competition. Ahn is hoping his film follows the footsteps of past winners in the category like Fruitvale Station, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious.
Ahn, 29, said he was committed to making the film after a gay friend mentioned he had a “hot hookup” at a Korean spa.
“That’s really where the film started: this intersection of my gay and Korean identities at the spa,” Ahn said.
Ahn said he grew up going to the men’s section of Korean spas with his father and always associated the experience with his childhood, family and Korean identity. When he heard men were finding sexual pleasure at the spa he thought it was sacrilegious and thrilling at the same time.
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“That intersection of my identities in one place was really fascinating to me, and I knew that I had to make a film about it,” Ahn told Fusion.
Ahn visited Korean spas in L.A. throughout the two years it took to write the screenplay. The film depicts typical the typical scenes of a Korean spa: people relaxing in hot pools, steam rooms, and taking showers out in the open. The film is also complete with scenes of older Koreans with large bellies bathing themselves too.
From first base to all the way to fourth base, the film doesn’t shy away from depicting what Ahn saw when he would visit Korean spas. Everything is out in the open.
A look at the “male for male” section on Craigslist shows ads propositioning for all sorts of scenarios. The ads also raise an interesting discussion about who is cruised and who isn’t cruised at Korean spas. At Korean spas, where everyone is typically naked, skin color can be all people really see.
One M4M Craigslist ad by someone who identified as a black male said the majority of the times he sees white men "fooling around." He said Latinos and Persians were cruised but "no black and Asians."
Finding a crew and funds to make a movie that explores this environment was a hard and long journey—so tough that Ahn was exhausted before the first day of production.
Finding Korean American actors who were comfortable with showing a range of emotions and full frontal scenes took over a year. Finding the main character David Cho involved casting calls, street casting, and even cold contacting Korean Instagram and Tumblr users.
“If this [movie] was about a late teens or early twenties white closeted gay boy, we could have seen thousands of actors,” Ahn told Fusion in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"I totally know why people make films about white people and it's because it’s a lot easier. The resources and people exist,” Ahn told Fusion.
He also wanted to find a film crew that could identify with the story.
“It’s not just about finding diversity in front of the camera. It’s also about finding people behind the camera: the writers, producers, directors. You really need those people in order to execute diverse stories,” said Ahn.
And then there was getting the movie funded. Investors worried about the film not finding an audience. Anh said investors didn’t really sign on to fund the film until 592 backers contributed $62,915 on Kickstarter.
“I really want this film to be successful so that it justifies my parents leaving their life in Korea and coming to the U.S. to start a family,” Ahn said.
The main character David speaks a mix of Korean and English to his parents, the same mix Ahn says he uses with his parents. The parents always speak Korean. More than half of the dialogue in the film is Korean and presented with English subtitles.
“It’s an American independent film and it’s in a different language. That’s what it means to be American now. It means that you’re not just speaking English,” Ahn said.
While TV has moved forward in including more complex roles for Asian men, the film industry has stayed behind. Spa Night redefines how Asian men can be presented in film. David is an extraordinarily emotional man who also happens to spend a lot of time doing sit ups and lifting weights—and the film definitely includes closeups of the fruits of his labor.
Sundance would not reveal how many filmmakers of color are participating in this year’s “U.S. Dramatic” competition. A Fusion analysis of the filmmakers’ bios, pictures and past interviews found there are four Asian-American directors competing in the category this year. Last year there were none.
The film also explores diversity within the Korean American community. Issues of class, religion, and family expectations are challenged in the film.
Los Angeles has the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea, according to 2010 Census data. On a national level, Asians now make up the fastest-growing ethnic group. Koreans haven't fared the best when it comes to household incomes. The median annual household income for Korean-Americans is $50,000 while the average for all Asians is $66,000, according to an analysis of 2010 Census data by the Pew Research Center.
Along with Chinese and Indian immigrants, South Koreans also make up the fastest-growing segments of undocumented immigrants.
So far the response from the community has been good, even after two well-read Korean newspapers profiled Ahn.
“I know that there will be some backlash and that the film will cause a little bit of controversy, but that’s good. It’s not fair for LGBTQ Korean-Americans to have to avoid talking about this,” said Ahn.
“We’re gay and we’re still Korean-American. You can’t strip away our identity just because we’re gay. You can’t take that away from us,” Ahn added.
Spa Night premieres at Sundance this Sunday.
Ahn’s parents will be traveling to Sundance and will see the film for the first time.