Peter S. Lee, Julian Kim, and Kat Kim on Directing & Producing ‘Happy Cleaners’
Happy Cleaners, the debut feature film of Peter S. Lee and Julian Kim, tells the story of a Korean American family who runs a dry cleaning business in Flushing, New York. Instead of centering around a single character’s point of view, each member of the household’s narratives are woven together intricately to provide a complete picture of immigrant life in the city. Casting for Happy Cleaners was also a true grassroots effort, featuring captivating performances by newcomers Hyang-hwa Lim (Mom), Yeena Sung (Hyunny), Donald Chang (Hyunny’s boyfriend), Yun Jeong (Kevin), and Charles Ryu (Dad).
Releasing under Jebby Productions (formerly Swallowtail Studios) in association with KoreanAmericanStory.org on Lunar New Year, we talked to directors Peter S. Lee and Julian Kim as well as writer/producer Kat Kim about how the film all came together.
From the Intercom: How did you get started on the project?
Julian: It’s a long story. Where do we start? Peter and I were childhood friends and we made movies together ever since we were in high school. But we really got into it after college, like post-college graduation, and since then we had this thirst for authentic stories that represents our community, our stories, and what it was like growing up in Flushing. We started off with a web series called Flushing Web Series. Basically, it was short stories of small happenings around the neighborhood where we grew up. One of the films called “Homework” caught the attention of KoreanAmericanStory.org, where they saw that our vision and mission were alike and we both saw the importance of sharing our Korean American experiences on screen. That film was based on Peter’s real life experiences when he was a little boy who immigrated to New York. Since then we kind of collaborated, but we always had this vision to tell a feature-length story regarding what it was like to grow up in an immigrant, Korean American household. So Peter, I, and Kat wrote this story and collaborated together, and that’s how it got started.
From the Intercom: How did Kat get involved with the project?
Kat: I actually went to a screening to see a short film that these gentlemen made. The Korean American community in New York is definitely connected to some degree. I think I approached them afterwards because I always wanted to make content: make films and write. Their voices, their narratives, and the stories that they were making were kind of in tune with what my desires were. I saw Julian’s “Call Taxi” and while we were talking we realized we were closer in degree than we thought and we all kind of went to similar churches, had similar kinds of schooling, and that’s how we kind of worked together. Then the three of us worked together on another project for an organization, and after that it was just natural that we continued to plant that seed and water that seed. They were gracious enough to have me on for this film, which was a great experience and a great ride.
From the Intercom: Were there any quintessential moments in the film that depicts your community that you fought to not leave out?
Peter: I think one thing that made our film so unique is in terms of how it got made. This was a community project where the financial support and whatnot came from the community. Our creative team probably enjoyed the most creative freedom–something that we probably might never be able to have again. With that said, we never faced [issues] like, “oh you guys have to cut this out” because everybody was on board with the [film’s message] and authenticity. Every single scene that you see in the film represents the experiences that we have as accurately as possible. I personally don’t think we had anything we had to fight to keep in. If anything, the film was too long! Editorially, the original cut was two and a half hours. So we were like, “Ok, we have to cut an hour of this.”
Julian: I think one thing I definitely want to say that I’m proud of is the use of language in this film. We purposely didn’t make the parents fluent, or try to speak dialogues in English. It was natural and kind of like our [own households] where we grew up. Our [parents] don’t speak English to us. They speak the language they’re most comfortable with and that was Korean. We stayed true to that and tried to make sure that that was the case. And even with the kids: we tried our best to mix in some Konglish–Korean and English. You have a mix of Korean words in English sentences and I think it was hard to adjust for viewers who were not accustomed to that, but people who grew up here were like “Yo that’s my house!” We made sure that we were truly being authentic with language as much as possible.
Kat: I agree with both Peter and Julian: the buzzword for us is authenticity. We shared a lot of the verbiage and a lot of conversations that we had with each other when we were growing up. So those are things that were repurposed and put on film from all the house conversations that we’ve had and all of that. I think we gave a snippet into a community that others would not have known about or will not be able to know about if it wasn’t for a film like this. A small enclave Flushing community… who would’ve known about it if it wasn’t for [a film] like Happy Cleaners to just show what it’s like? That’s what I wanted to hone in on.
From the Intercom: What is something that you learned from filming Happy Cleaners?
Julian: I think one thing I would say that I learned from working on Happy Cleaners is that I had to learn to compromise. For one thing, [the film is] a very community-run project and everyone was on board, but we also had our limits. For example, filming in New York apartments is not a fun thing. You have thirty, forty people running around in a tight two-bedroom space in the heat of the summer. It’s not the most beautiful thing you could think of. But you had to compromise and make it work. And even though as a director you have certain visions about how you want to see the scenes play out, you also have to understand the condition you’re in and the environment you’re in. I think one thing that’s most beautiful about filmmaking is the collaborative process. Even though a director or one person can have a vision, everyone’s input–from the actors, the DPs, the producers, to the writers–they all have to chime in. They all had their own creative inputs to make a project and only by then is a film, I think, good.
From the Intercom: In your Kickstarter promo video there’s a piece of footage taken in the mid-80s that was said to have inspired the project. What was it like writing a story sourced from past experiences but having it being based in the present-day?
Julian: When I was one year old my dad just kind of filmed stuff. He worked in a cleaners, so he got a camera, like a VHS camcorder, and just filmed. Very rare and uncommon, I think, for Korean families to have this, but I had footage of it. And I mean, going back to the whole process when we started the Flushing series, it was a search for our identity and our place in this country. Who are we? What does it mean to be a Korean American, an Asian American, or more broadly, an American? So when we did that we had to do some research and I looked at that footage and that’s where it stemmed from. It started and rooted from that authentic experience. Kat, Peter, myself: our experiences growing up were very similar. I think it’s definitely different than when people who immigrate come here now. For sure I think [the film] has a little homage to the 80s and 90s, but it’s just from our own personal experiences.
Peter: I think one thing is whether you experienced these set of things in the 80s or 90s. Based on the reactions we’ve been hearing from the audience, and this includes people who immigrated in the 60s and 70s, the fact that they’re all able to see themselves [on-screen] and tell us that it was what I went through, or what I am going through, says that maybe it’s a sad thing that nothing’s changed! The struggles are still here. Maybe we as a society have to do better, or maybe it’s just the growing up pains that every new incoming family must go through to be able to lay down roots.
From the Intercom: What are you working on right now for the film?
Peter: So far it’s been non-stop… everybody on the team has been trying to get the film distributed. For a lot of independent films, that’s the struggle. We’re fortunate to meet other players who are able to get the film distributed this far, so we’re just excited to have this come out.
From the Intercom: Kat, did you use any of your lawyer skills to help the film?
Kat: I did a lot of creative writing and I know it’s so much different from legal, but I think just the sense of being sure of what I do like in legal, [gave me] confidence in whatever I was able to express. That translated a lot into the work I had to do with these guys and being a new producer. I had to be sure of what I am convicted of: what I’m trying to portray, what message I’m trying to convey, and I had to be very clear and confident in what I was trying to express. So that helped a lot. And other back-end things, like admin stuff–as a lawyer that helped me in terms of managing expectations, managing sets, and helping and supporting in whatever way I could. So yes, I would say that it was very, very helpful.
Julian: Kat really hustled even though she had her law background! Once you actually go in to film law and contracts, it’s like a whole new set of things she had to learn, so it didn’t really help [laughs]. To be honest, she had to go and learn it again, but she really hustled because she did all that stuff. But more than anything, what we really appreciated was her authentic experiences that she put in the film. (SPOILER AHEAD!): I think she definitely offered a different perspective as opposed to when Peter and I would write the films. I think she really shaped the film in certain ways. For example, the scene with Hyunny and Mom where they come together and then she apologizes, I think that’s something that Kat should be very proud of. It really stemmed from her experiences and dialogues that she had. So I think more than anything, more than her legal background, we really appreciated her creative input.
From the Intercom: How can people stay updated with your film and its release?
Julian: Follow us on @happycleanersfilm on Instagram and Facebook. Ever since the pandemic we’ve been kind of laying low, so just check us out on Instagram, we’re out on video on demand on February 12th, so we’re going to be available on Apple TV, Amazon, I forget the rest, but we’ll be around. And there’s a DVD that you can buy! [On Jebby Productions] we’re still working on what to do next. Since the pandemic, everything came to a halt. But you know, I don’t think there’s ever a stop to this. I think we should be continuously working on stories and making movies, and I think more and more of stories that represent us is needed. Once we have the right time and moments, we want to work on making more content and more stories for you guys.
Happy Cleaners is out on February 12, 2021 on major streaming services including Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vimeo, and FandagoNOW. For more information on how to watch Happy Cleaners, click this link.
This interview was conducted by Jonathan Liu in January 2021 via Zoom. Photos courtesy of KoreanAmericanStory.org.
Check out From the Intercom‘s review of Happy Cleaners in 2019, which you can find here.