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Award Winning Asian American Actor & Director to Open New York’s Asian American International Film Festival

Spa night
Spa Night stars Joe Seo

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent


Spa Night, the film which kicks off the nine-day Asian American International Film Festival tomorrow night in New York, is rolling into the Big Apple with some major MO as in momentum.The film by director Andrew Ahn and starring Joe Seo was just honored by the Outfest Los Angeles for best narrative feature prize and best performance by Seo. This comes off the award for best breakthrough performance by Seo from Sundance.
AsAmNews had a chance to talk to both Seo and Ahn coming off their awards at Outfest.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about awards. I was ecstatic,” Ahn told AsAmNews. “It’s always nice to be recognized for your hard work! In many ways, these awards are a way to keep me motivated, to continue making work, and to always find ways to grow as an artist.”
Ahn has previously been honored by both Outfest and the Austin Gay And Lesbian Film Festival for his short film Dol (first Birthday)
Seo has received raves for his understated, but gripping performance as a young teen David Cho in Spa Night. He is asked by his struggling parents to help with the family’s troubled financial situation by getting a job and to pay for his SAT prep courses.
He ends up working in a gay spa in Koreatown where he explores his sexuality.

“It was the most difficult role yet, ” said Seo. “He (David) had a whirlwind of emotions that ripped apart his inner soul. How do you show that without throwing chairs, hitting people, or just imploding?!!! Trust me, by the third day of shooting, I felt like I needed some counseling.
“David’s character is in search of his identity, and like most teens, this process is tremendously confusing. His exploration into the gay realm is difficult for a lot of conservative Asian cultures to accept. As for me, I thought it was time for the Asian community to love and embrace a marginalized group of their own people. There was no fear for me to overcome, I believed in the message of the film, so I needed to be a part of it.”
Seo displayed extreme courage accepting the role. The topic is not one many in the Korean community are comfortable with. In fact Ahn says many actors eventually quit the film because they could not deal with the pressures from their families and fear of the perception people might have of them for working on the film. Ahn has not doubt why these actors quit.
“I lost actors because of the queer theme in the film,” he said. “Many actors didn’t want to take the risk of being associated with a project that shows gay sex, despite the fact that the film is very much a portrait of a family. One woman who auditioned for the role of David’s mother told me she couldn’t be in the film because her husband is a pastor. One young actor who auditioned for the role of David told me that his mother would never approve of him playing gay. I think much of this stems from the fact that being gay is not talked about in the Korean American community. It’s swept under the rug. As frustrating as these roadblocks were, we were ultimately able to find our cast and I’m so grateful to them.”
Ahn, himself, is open about being gay, but says his life has been much different than his main character David. David is an only child and struggling to get into college. Ahn went to Brown and has an older brother. Still he feels connected to David and his struggles to balance his identities and manage his parent’s expectations while trying to live an authentic life.
After a screening at the Jeonju International Film Festival, Ahn recalls a young Korean man approaching him and revealing he is gay.
“I was the first person he came out to. I felt so honored that watching Spa Night inspired him to take that first step.”
Both Ahn and Seo see the film as more than just a gay film. Spa Night also explores the universal theme of family.
“There is a formula for what Asian American parents want for their kids,” Seo explained. “They want their kids to do well in school, go to a great university, become a doctor, marry a healthy/wealthy spouse, then pop out grandkids. My parents were no different. It’s tough being a kid because sometimes our goals don’t align with what our loving parents had in mind for us. This doesn’t just relate to Asian Americans, but I think this transcends to all ethnicities that are also struggling to establish roots in this country.”
Both Seo and Ahn will participate in a question and answer session after the screening Thursday night at AAIFF. Additional screenings for Spa Night are scheduled beginning August 19 in New York and starting August 26 in Los Angeles.
Ahn says his next project has not been finalized, but he has several projects he’s working on. “Some gay, some Korean, some both, some neither,” he says. While the opportunities are endless, he admits feeling the pressure of growing expectations.
Seo has been invited to meet with some studio executives, which is an accomplishment by itself. “As for more gig opportunities, I haven’t seen the fruits of that yet. Fingers crossed.”
“I hope people come out to see the film,” concluded Ahn. “I hope people tell people about the film! There has been so much in the news about the lack of Asian representation in film and how studios are whitewashing roles in films like Ghost in a Shell or Doctor Strange. I’m really glad that I made Spa Night, a film that features an entirely Korean lead cast, because I feel like it can push Asian and Asian American actors to the forefront. However, in order to do this, people need to see it! If audiences show a desire to watch more Asian American film, we can make more Asian American film.”

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