Embracing My Otherness as an Asian-American Gay Filmmaker

Andrew Ahn, director of the Sundance award-winner Spa Night, on the necessity of facing up to the things that set you apart.
Joe Seo (David) in Andrew Ahn's SPA NIGHT

I spoke on two panels at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. They were back-to-back on the same day: an Asian-American panel, and then a queer panel. I ran from one to the other. At the Asian-American panel, I was really gay. At the gay panel, I was really Asian. It was not my intention for this to happen. I found myself talking about what made me different from the other panelists. I was forced there by the flow of the conversation. Questions would be posed to the group that did not apply to me; I would have to explain why. It often had to do with the other identity that my work explores.

This feeling of otherness was not limited to the panels; throughout my entire Sundance experience, I felt like an outsider. I had conversations with fancy agents and actors, never quite sure what they were talking about. Was “Joan” a person or a restaurant? By extension, my film also felt out of place. Within the U.S. Dramatic Competition, Spa Night had the least star power, featuring an entirely Korean main cast. Our film was only one of two in U.S. Dramatic Competition with a significant portion of dialogue in a language besides English. Yes, we had subtitles.

However, I don’t think I was alone in feeling alone at Sundance. For many of us at the festival, we were screening our first feature, coming at filmmaking from outside the establishment. Many of us probably felt like everyone knew each other, except us. Midway through the festival, I saw a director with one of the biggest films at Sundance walking alone down Main Street, looking a little lost without their first-weekend entourage.

In many ways, independent filmmaking is defined by this feeling of otherness. I believe it drives independent filmmakers to tell stories about characters who feel the same way. From Pariah to Little Miss Sunshine, mumblecore movies to New Queer Cinema, independent films are full of outsiders, people who feel excluded or outcast. In Spa Night, my main character, David, a closeted young Korean-American man, finds a job at a Korean spa to help support his family financially. While he’s there, he discovers a world of underground gay cruising that scares and excites him. Throughout the film, David finds himself entrenched in very Korean and very queer spaces (and in the case of the spa, both at the same time). However, he’s never quite able to fully participate, always observing from a distance.

We make independent films because the only place to tell these stories is outside the studio system. Maybe our subject matter is too controversial. Maybe there’s not enough commercial appeal. Maybe it’s a first film. Whatever the situation, we begin our projects with an understanding that this project is different, it’s something we haven’t seen before. Why else would we make it? Then, throughout the process of developing and making independent film, we must constantly answer questions about why we want to tell this story and what makes it special. In this process, a sense of otherness begins to permeate the work we make as independent filmmakers. I think about John Cassavetes, an actor entrenched in the industry, and yet a filmmaker who had to make work on the fringes because of the stories he wanted to tell. Cassavetes’ Shadows and Faces became more and more distinct because of how they were made. Otherness is a built-in mechanism, impossible to avoid.

Making independent films can be scary, especially when considering audiences. As my producers and I searched for financing, people continually reminded us that Spa Night was a very niche project. People tried to define the project’s sense of otherness as a fault. I admit that the queer Korean-American community does not necessarily encompass a large percentage of the population. However, I find otherness a poor reason for a lack of audience. Ultimately, both filmmakers and audiences need to embrace the idea that otherness is unifying, not alienating. We express our otherness in an effort to find a community, to create a beacon for others who feel our special brand of otherness. We ultimately find this community with our collaborators, other filmmakers, and audiences; by making films, screening films, and talking about films.

In this way, otherness is not a bad thing; it is simply a manifestation of our individuality. As independent filmmakers, we recognize what sets us apart. The next step is to feel confident about those differences enough to express them, so we can grow not just as filmmakers, but also as active participants in our society.

Andrew Ahn is a Korean-American filmmaker born and raised in Los Angeles. His feature film Spa Night premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was one of RogerEbert.com’s Best Films of Sundance 2016. The film opens theatrically in New York starting August 19 at Metrograph and in Los Angeles starting August 26 at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas. (Photo by Mitch Dao)