Korean-American director wins big at Independent Spirit Awards

Mark Lee, Feb. 28, 2017, 10 a.m.

As Hollywood was making its final preparations for the glitz, glamor -- and gaffes -- of this year’s Oscars, on Saturday the film world’s purveyors of lower-budget films gathered in Santa Monica, California, for the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Among those in attendance was Andrew Ahn, who won the John Cassavetes Award presented for the best feature film with a budget under $500,000 for “Spa Night,” and who was also a nominee for the Someone to Watch Award.

“Spa Night,” a story Ahn called “so personal” to him when it was shown at the 17th Jeonju International Film Festival in May last year, portrays a young Korean-American man discovering and coming to grips with his homosexuality after taking a job at a Korean spa. It was released in the US in August.

While Ahn still pursues distribution in Korea -- Korean is the primary language of the film -- “Spa Night” recently began streaming on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.

“Now more than ever it’s so important that we support stories told by and about communities that are marginalized,” Ahn said when he took to the stage to accept the award Saturday.

Ahn expanded on this view Tuesday in a phone interview with The Korea Herald following his win. “With Donald Trump as president there’s a lot of policies and executive orders being put into place that are really scary,” he said.

“Film is this really great opportunity to help people realize these laws are affecting human beings.”

Ahn recalled that when the film first screened in Los Angeles, a fellow Korean-American man asked why they had made a movie that’s not very indicative of their culture, saying, “This is only 1 out of 100 Korean-American experiences.”

“But it would be so meaningful for that person,” Ahn replied, talking about the “burden of representation” he felt for not only Asian-Americans, but for the queer community as well.

On Saturday, he ended his acceptance speech saying, “Finally I just have to thank my parents for understanding that their gay Korean-American son is their son. So thank you.”

Observations of similarities in theme between “Spa Night” and “Moonlight,” which on Sunday became the first film about a gay character to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, are inevitable.

“I’m very flattered and I encourage that association,” Ahn said with a laugh. “What the film (‘Moonlight’) does is so beautiful.”

As Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight,” was also nominated as “Someone to Watch“ in 2009 for “Medicine for Melancholy,” does Ahn feel greater pressure coming off the Spirit Awards? “I don’t feel pressure so much as I am motivated to make more films, bigger films, riskier films,” Ahn told The Korea Herald.

On future projects, the director said he has begun working on an adaptation of a Korean-American novel he could not yet disclose.

But, he added, “I’m actively looking for opportunities to shoot films that take place in Korea. It’s a country I obviously have a strong connection to, but distance from (as a second-generation Korean-American).” 

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