Failed legacies of feeling: Racial melancholia and fragile subjects of queer intimacy in Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016)
Essay by Amanda Wan
Art by Ivy Zhan
In Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, queerness circulates through the aesthetics of failure and fragility within the Cho family, and the losses that they desire and grieve as racialized and classed subjects. Racial melancholia, as formulated by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, circulates between members of the family as traces of emotional maps and form their relationality to one another. The emotional terrains between the Chos and other figures throughout the film generate queer intimacies through spoken language, physical acts of care and kinship, and the preservation of lost desires and emotions in the memory work of circulating or inheriting grief. As these queer intimacies become generated through modes of kinship that do not privilege relationality based on shared claims to race, language, or biological reproduction—and as characters like David “fail” in western LGBTQ discourses and analyses of Spa Night—it becomes clear how fragile seemingly concrete identitarian categories like “queer,” “Asian,” or “Korean/Korean American” are in highlighting the politics of coherent subjectivity and recognition as a queer subject. Frustrations and disappointed expectations about David’s failure to perform as a visible and audible queer subject communicate the fragility of the emotional and political desires upholding these identitarian categories, and the need for resolution and legibility enclosed in these desires.
Through four sections, I will work through the immense communicative potential of failure and fragility across various characters and readings of Spa Night: “Reading the shame of racial melancholia in the Cho family,” “‘Inscrutable’ Asians and the failed queer subject,” “Speaking unclearly/Translating queerly,” and “Troubling ‘coming out’ narratives: the queering space of the Korean spa.”
Reading the shame of racial melancholia in the Cho family
I approach racial melancholia as Eng and Han’s construction of a “psychic condition,” wherein unresolved grief over losing objects and ideals associated with selfhood and subjectivity culminates in grief that is never redirected externally and is instead internalized (Eng 16). In their commitment to destabilize the pathologizing tendencies of Freud—one of the points at which Eng and Han arrive at the theory of melancholia—racialized subjects moving through immigration and the legacies of Western imperialism in Asia, such as the working-class immigrant Cho family in Spa Night, may grieve over “lost objects, places, and ideals” in attempts to recognize themselves in fulfilling desires. As we see with the working-class immigrant Cho family in Spa Night, tThese longings “remain estranged and unresolved” because they are never fulfilled and therefore felt as lost (Eng 17, emphasis in original). Forced to close their restaurant due to financial struggles, the Chos’ psychic terrains become “uninhabitable and barren,” demonstrating “conditions of existence” characteristic of racial melancholia (Eng 13). Within this landscape of feeling, they are made to move with diminished capacity for embodying or imagining feelings such as happiness and hopefulness. It is the emotional and embodied lives of loss and longing that are made possible for the Chos, engendering not merely a lack of fulfillment but an excess—of sadness, of longing, and the shame of feeling helpless against such spillages, where shame turns the pain of melancholy into a matter of one’s own body (a thread I will take up in a later section). Such melancholic excess confirms the inarticulable quality of pain and loss; it also gestures towards the possibility of reading the aesthetics and communicative potentials of sadness, despair, and failure, rather than pathologizing either sadness or happiness as polar symptoms only capable of betraying—then excavating—the other.
Quietly, loss flowers between David (played by Joe Seo), Soyoung (David’s mother, played by Haeery Kim), and Jin Cho (David’s father, played by Youn Ho Cho) in their shared relationalities embodied through tiredness and memory work. When they close the restaurant, they lose access to its physical space and the emotional terrains mapped onto it. Echoes of their loss resonate as Soyoung and David encounter the tangible brokenness of the building where Soyoung and Jin first lived when they migrated from Korea, now neglected. Facing the building, and presently dislocated from her emotional memory map of arrival in America, Soyoung recounts details of her and Jin’s feelings to David while staring at the run-down building. She ends forlornly:
SOYOUNG: Moving to America… we were so excited to be here.(Spa Night)
DAVID: Are you okay?
SOYOUNG: It’s been a long day. 1
Soyoung’s initial excitement and hope mapped onto the building, here, becomes disoriented by the present emotional terrain of losing their restaurant and great financial and emotional strain. Her loss and grief manifests as tiredness—“It’s been a long day”—as Soyoung physiologically bears the emotional weight of holding past affects while confronting their misalignment with the present moment. The labour of memory ensures that the weight of loss is not only the weight of loss itself, but of its haunting presence, carried long after it has been perceived to be gone.
Eng and Han offer that under racial melancholia, objects or ideals that are lost are preserved by the ego’s ongoing, ambivalent identification with them—a person internalizes what is lost as part of themselves in order to keep it alive. Such internalization produces estrangement because the connection is based on lost objects associated with negative affects; identification not only happens with lost objects or ideals, then, but with their painful emptiness and ghostliness (Eng and Han 688). Grieving the lost building and an emotional map she no longer has access to, Soyoung preserves their ghosts by bearing their weight while passing them onto David through storytelling. David has no memories of the building himself (he only recalls their second home, “the pink apartment”), but the ghost has been articulated as part of their relationship in a shared psychic realm. In this way, the “intersubjective psychology” of racial melancholia “as a psychic state focused on bonds among people … that might be addressed and resolved across generations” (Eng and Han 683) manifests in David and Soyoung’s relationality, which resonates with the circulating ghost of lost spaces and emotions.
“Inscrutable” Asians and the failed queer subject
Across Spa Night and film reviews, David seems to “fail” as a subject—as a gay Korean son in the context of his family and alongside other Korean diasporic subjects in the film, and as a queer subject in the North American LGBTQ discourse of English-language online reviews. He forgets to use both hands to pour alcohol for his father as per Korean etiquette. His SAT scores are too low for college admission because study time has been spent helping his parents run their restaurant, and become distressing when hope is placed onto David to find promising employment. He is unable to express the appropriate affects of joy or pleasure when he joins childhood peer Eddie Baek and friends for lively, drunken karaoke. His playful, yet fraught conversation with Soyoung and Jin at a Korean spa locates points of temporal misalignment within the family:
SOYOUNG: David, when you get married, I’ll come to the spa with my daughter-in-law. [Laughs.] 2
DAVID: What if my wife doesn’t want to scrub your back?
SOYOUNG: Why wouldn’t she want to?
DAVID: [In English.] What if she thinks it’s gross?
SOYOUNG: Gross? What’s gross about that?
JIN: Leave him alone. It’s too early to talk about marriage.
SOYOUNG: [Smiles.] He can start dating! It’s just dating. Don’t you want to meet a pretty Korean girl?
DAVID: What if I marry a white girl?
SOYOUNG: [Pauses, no longer smiling.] A white girl is okay. If you want. But how would your father and I communicate with her? How would we talk to her? To our grandchildren? You should marry a Korean woman and have Korean kids. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Soyoung’s “when you get married” places David onto a timeline where he will inevitably be married to a woman who engages with familial rituals like going to the spa and biologically reproducing grandchildren. David tests queering this timeline not by asking about dating a boy or not having children, but by disrupting the spa ritual that affirms Soyoung’s temporal mapping of kinship—“What if she thinks it’s gross?”—and by suggesting dating a white girl. Through these minor challenges, he asks about assumptions underlying bindings around language, culture, racialized bodies and tongues (“How would we talk to her? To our grandchildren?”), domestic rituals, and relationality within a viable family unit, potentially unravelling (or at least gesturing towards the possibility of unravelling) cisheteronormative assumptions about kinship and relationality.
In a number of film reviews, David fails as a queer subject because he is illegible and repressed within LGBTQ discourse. His quietness poses an “inability to fully express himself” to the extent that
there is no need for an Asian-American cyborg, because we already have plenty … [Asian-Americans in cinema] kiss and undress, but never cross the lines or make a mess. They go through the motions of living but never experience joy, ecstasy, or devastation. Like cyborgs, they are human on the outside, but on the inside not quite, not enough.(Dong, emphasis my own)
Dong’s comparison between the unfeeling cyborg and David is fascinating because it unfolds within the context of a genealogy of Asian subjects cast as mysterious or unfeeling in the Western imagination, through “the Asiatic figure … associated with aloofness and obfuscation, as exemplified by the notion of the ‘inscrutable Oriental’” (Hu). Through this Orientalist trope of inscrutability, limited capacities for affect are mapped onto Asian bodies: unable to hold space for the interiority that characterizes humanity and individual subjectivity in liberal humanist philosophy, bodies racialized as Asian do not require readings beyond Western imperial projections upon their skin.
That David is compared to an ineffectual cyborg because he speaks little, is reserved in facial expressions, and never vocalizes cathartic self-actualization throughout the film
Dismissals of David’s ambivalent subjectivity across Spa Night and its reviews signal the fragility of seemingly solidified identitarian categories such as “queer”. That David can “fail” to be a liberated queer subject because he does not vocalize self-actualization by the end of the film betrays how fragile “queer” is as a mode of perception and identification—much like the subjects who are supposed to embody narratives around queerness. Within “an easy equation of queerness … with modernity, visibility, sexual liberation, and revelation … set over and against the tropes of ‘tradition,’ concealment, secrecy, and modesty” (Gopinath 166), failed expectations around expressing subjectivity communicate plenty about the slippages and seams of identity and recognition, such as the labours of desire, political investment, and idealized trajectories that produce the discursive project of idealized subjects as “queer.” That David’s failed queerness is inseparable from his figuration under the shadow of the “inscrutable Oriental” elaborates the fragility of the “Korean/Korean American” subject, through which David’s reticence is uncritically attributed to a Korean culture’s “certain kind of family-based social conservatism” with “more traditional gender roles” (Barber 75) and an inability to comprehend queerness. At best, such an essentialist reading of so-called “Korean culture” stumbles on what Gopinath critiques as Western nationalist readings, which privatize and naturalize conflict as Asian generational issues within a “production of the ‘Asian family’” (Barber 166) rather than reading them as subjects of a diaspora embodying interconnected global intimacies of class, race, gender, sexuality, mobility, and legacies of imperialism.
Speaking unclearly/Translating queerly
Christine Kim suggests that narratives circulating in Asian diaspora can “generate their affective power by bringing together generations of people who continue to share a collective identity.” Meanwhile, she wonders “what discursive space exists for difference and … recognizing competing registers of diasporic affect and sentiment” (Kim 92). If competing registers mark the fragility of relationality or a failure to communicate, then the use of Spanish between David and Luis—the character who delivers supplies to the Chos’ restaurant—marks this space of failure as a site of potential queer intimacies. Their shared use of Spanish generates an intimate space where differently racialized bodies and affective registers are able to communicate through translation, which is an act that is meaningful precisely because of the acknowledgement of difference and ambivalence in coherence. David and Luis’ relationality also emerges from classed and racialized relationalities rather than biological claims to race or kinship. Translation, then, interrupts Soyoung’s suggestion that the capacity for certain languages can be mapped onto racialized bodies based on watertight identifications of language, race, and the capacity to reproduce (e.g. Korean woman = Korean language, can communicate with David’s family, viable biological or familial kin; white woman = English language, cannot communicate with David’s family, impossible to imagine as biological or familial kin).
Spanish communicates another space of fraughtly queered intimacy for David when he encounters it during a conflict between the Korean-speaking spa manager, a Spanish-speaking patron who has been accused of doing “bad [presumably moralized, sexual] things,” the Korean-speaking patron who has accused him, and an English-speaking police officer. David does not translate for anyone involved in the conflict; his silence amidst words hurled through Spanish, Korean, and English (all of which he can speak) helps us locate his relationalities mediated through Spanish both in and outside of the spa as one of multiple, differing translations of queerness. Put another way, the possibilities of communicating kinship through multiple languages, alongside the associations between his use of these languages and his experiences with queer intimacy, mean that David’s silence may actually be more communicative than if he had translated for the patrons, spa manager, and police officer. The fact that his silence is foregrounded in this scene invites readings of David’s silence; we are called to question the desire for coherent speech and legibility, at the expense of the enriching language of silence, the failure to translate, and David’s ambivalent presence.
Troubling “coming out” narratives: the queering space of the Korean spa
If we relate the possibilities of silence to queerness, the space of the Korean spa communicates intriguingly with western LGBTQ discourses of “coming out” and “cruising”: Cruising takes on an ephemeral, almost melancholic tone, with the showers saturated in soft, electric blues. “I’ve talked about the cruising sequences as ghost stories,” Ahn [Director of Spa Night] says. “Men come in and out; you may see them again, but likely you won’t” (Jung). Ghostly figures of David’s psyche around queer intimacy do move in and out of the spa, but as spectres, they do not all disappear. Eddie, whom David is caught gazing at in the sauna during their night out, is also encountered within his dorm—a space tense with David’s desires, but also Eddie’s performances of masculinity and the fact of David’s barred access to college because of classed and racialized conditions. Ephemeral and yet mobile subjects of queerness, like Eddie, complicate readings of the spa as a closet out of which David must break to recognize his sexuality.
Jin, too, becomes a figure of queer intimacy in and outside of the physical boundaries of the spa. Scrubbing each other in the film’s opening sequence, David and Jin express their care through actions based not primarily on the logics of sexual or romantic desire that regulate “capitalism’s disciplinary temporalities” (Day 71), but through relationality embodied through shared ritual. As an expression of care, however, scrubbing later demonstrates the capacity to become a manifestation of racial melancholia or the shame formed by the internalization of lost desire and intimacy. David’s erotic encounter with another patron in the sauna seems to be a moment of recognition, rendered mutual through their brief exchange:
DAVID: Are you Korean?(Spa Night)
DAVID: Me too.
What seems to be a moment of recognition mediated through shared racial identification as Anglophone Korean men is complicated as a relationality in the visual framing of the brief sex scene following this exchange. Throughout the scene, the majority of the frame consists of the patron’s torso, with David’s arm wrapped around him and a hand on his chest. Occasionally, David’s face appears—but the patron’s face remains out of frame. When they finish, the man returns silently to his previous seat in the sauna, and David gazes directly forward. Only when David leans in for a kiss and is abruptly rejected by the patron is the man’s face shown. Such abrupt rejection, accompanied by the in- and out-of-frame placement of the patron’s face and David’s embrace of the patron’s body during the sex scene, are suggestive of a number of things. Continuing with racial melancholia, David’s embrace of the man’s patron’s body, along with the figure’sand the patron’s out-of-frame face, suggests David’s eroticized and embodied identification with this figure: in that moment he represents, for David, the potential for fulfilled desires of racial and sexual recognition. That the man’s patron’s face appears in the frame when he abruptly rejects David’s kiss suggests that his body also represents the potential for loss and failure to fulfill such desires, once he disrupts David’s identification with him as a source of reciprocated intimacy. They are further disrupted by the terror of being caught by the spa manager, who interrupts them when he walks up to the sauna door just after David attempts a kiss.to kiss the patron.
Following this charged scene, David, repeatedly scrubs his stomach so hard that he cries and breaks skin. Resonating with intermittent cuts of David taking nude or partially-nude self-portraits with his cellphone and undergoing workouts towards toning his stomach, David’s grief around his lost ideals—whether encapsulated in the encounter with the Korean American man, the fulfilled desire (and desirability) attendant to such an encounter, or financial support and proximity to other gay men from his employment at the spa—manifests as self-surveillance and shame and self-discipline, when David internalizes his loss as part of his body and physically punishes himself for it by scrubbing.3 Through this moving, yet painful scene, embodied registers of failure emphasize the affective and physical fragility of subjects moving through the emotional terrain of internalized desires that they cannot fulfill.
Why think queerness through failure and fragility? Working through failure and fragility is one possible reminder of the ways in which narratives around kinship, love, and feeling are, like all ways of living, narratives with their own ecologies, reproductive logics, and aesthetics. In reading through modes of failure and fragility I hope to consider the embodied efforts and labours that are taken to not only generate narratives around kinship and feeling, but also reproduce them as ostensibly natural and all-encompassing. I hope to ask what happens when racialized subjects fail to meet the disciplining criteria that grant their bodies subjectivity, and when we attend to the inevitable fragilities of these bodies under liberal humanist philosophies that associate human subjectivity with legible feeling and linear resolution to loss. Far from valorizing the “straightening devices” of colonial, cisheteronormative temporalities, I also want to illustrate how “[t]he effects and evidences of queerness” are “resolutely phenomenological; they are felt and bodies when they move” (Catungal, Diaz, and Kojima 70). Desires towards cisheteronormativity develop through the labours of the body—not always through externalized acts of suppression or violence, but sometimes through conditions that lead to self-disciplining/surveillance, or loss that becomes internalized and inherited, and in the process potentially reproduce the conditions of such loss. Such labours have profound impacts on psychic and bodily terrains and the capacity to imagine alternative conditions. Yet the queering potentials of failure put pressure on the legacy of capitalist, colonial epistemologies where bodies earn the role of subject through coherence or toxic ideals of success via productivity and profit—and even then only flourish insofar as pleasure comes at the cost of exploitation of other bodies. Failure can be queering because the act of failure facilitates a language for when a queer subject “quietly loses, and in losing … imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (Halberstam 88). Failure might then operate as part of a refusal to be put-together under the logics and pressures of (settler-)colonial capitalism, which itself is an embodied, laborious, and often inconsistent mode of reading subjectivity.
Gesturing towards fragility and the embodied labours of subjectivity, I want to point to the ways in which projections of categories like “queer,” “Korean,” or “Asian” are made up of desires that “follow the line[s] of a wish” (Ahmed 114) towards coherent identities, along with the embodied landscapes through which identified subjects move towards desires for what is possible for racialized, queer(ing) bodies. I also point to the care and healing work that forms the center of my experience and understanding of what queerness does, and with my own desires and anticipatory positions in reading Spa Night alongside legacies of feeling in the Korean diaspora. Put another way, I want to honour the emotional and political labour that it has taken to even imagine better futures through queerness, and have made it possible for me and my—or indeed any—body to do the work of writing this body of work in the first place. This includes any failures and latent desires that I am accountable for in my reading of Spa Night.
If David Cho is criticized as a failing discursive figure or incoherent subject in readings of Spa Night, I read David’s failures as offering their own communicative logic and aesthetics for circulating and (re)generating meaning. Such failures, and subsequent frustrations with his character, are indicative of the rich possibilities of attending to what has been deemed unworthy of attention because there is ostensibly nothing there to attend to. Also highlighted are queering desires for what could be, which we carry into interpretations of “failing” queer of colour subjects like David. The work of queer desire and world-building can be messy and painful, if brilliant and worthwhile; perhaps what communicates the most about the possibilities of queerness is how we inevitably demonstrate imperfection in the course of doing so.
Ahmed, Sara. “The Orient and Other Others.” Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006, pp. 109-156.
Spa Night. Directed by Andrew Ahn, performances by Joe Seo, Haerry Kim, and Youn Ho Cho, Nonetheless Productions, 2016.
Barber, Laurence. “Coming in: Culture, class and repression in Andrew Ahn’s ‘Spa Night.’” Metro Magazine: Media and Education Magazine, vol. 191, January 2017, pp. 72-76.
Catungal, John Paul, Diaz, Robert, and Dai Kojima. “Introduction: Feeling Queer, Feeling Asian, Feeling Canadian.” Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 38, March 2018, pp. 69-80. https://doi.org/10.3138/topia.38.69.
Day, Iyko. “Sex, Time, and the Transcontinental Railroad: Abstract Labor and the Queer Temporalities of History 2.” Alien Capital. Duke UP, 2016, pp. 41-72.
Dong, Kelley. “Under the Skin: Andrew Ahn’s ‘Spa Night.’” MUBI Notebook, 31 December 2016, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/under-the-skin-andrew-ahn-s-spa-night. Accessed 09 October 2018.
Eng, David L. and Han, Shinhee. “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, vol. 10, no.4, 2000, pp. 667-700.
Eng, David L. “Transnational Adoption and Queer Diasporas.” Social Text, vol. 21, no. 3, Fall 2003, pp. 1-37. Project MUSE. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/47177.
Erbland, Kate. “‘Spa Night’ Review: Gay Korean Coming-of-Age Drama Finds Resonance in Unlikely Places.” IndieWire, 17 August 2016. http://www.indiewire.com/2016/08/spa-night-review-andrew-ahn-sundance-1201717645. Accessed 09 October 2018.
Gopinath, Gayatri. “Bollywood Spectacles: Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11. Social Text, no. 3-4, Fall-Winter 2005, pp. 157-169.
Halberstam, Judith. “The Queer Art of Failure.” The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011, pp. 87-121.
Hu, Jane. “The ‘Inscrutable’ Voices of Asian-Anglophone Fiction.” The New Yorker, 15 November 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-inscrutable-voices-of-asian-anglophone-fiction. Accessed 09 October 2018.
Jung, E. Alex. “In Spa Night, the Sauna Plays an Integral Role in the Gay Korean-American Identity.” Vulture, 25 August 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2016/08/spa-night-and-the-gay-korean-american-identity.html. Accessed 09 October 2018.
Kim, Christine. “Diasporic Fragility and Brokenness: Korean War Legacies and Structures of Feeling.” The Minor Intimacies of Race: Asian Publics in North America, Illinois UP, 2016, pp. 91-123.
Laforteza, Elaine Marie Carbonell. “Somatechnologies of the Mestiza/o Self: Skin Colour and Language.” The Somatechnics of Whiteness and Race: Colonialism and Mestiza Privilege. Ashgate Publishing, 2015, pp. 51-72.
- Transcriptions from on English-language translations and captions provided by Netflix Canada. [↩]
- This section of dialogue happens entirely in Korean, except where indicated otherwise. [↩]
- On self-discipline, I am informed by Elaine Marie Carbonell Laforteza’s work on skin colour and language as “somatechnologies of the self” (51) within postcolonial Philippines. These somatechnologies are facilitated through embodied technologies of self-disciplining, e.g. the beauty industry’s skin-lightening creams (discipline and surveillance through the skin) or Spanish language use in the education system (discipline and shaping through the tongue). Laforteza argues that the colonial legacy of Eurocentric beauty standards and privilege attached to whiteness become circulated in everyday life as part of gendered, classed, and racialized routines around self-image, some of which are ostensibly banal. In Spa Night, more might be asked about the significance of quotidian, yet ritualized, cleansing and grooming in the Korean spas within the film. For more from Laforteza, see Works Cited. [↩]