LAAPFF Review: ‘Happy Cleaners’ (2019), dir. Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee
Anyone looking for Asian American representation on screen need not look further than Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s family drama Happy Cleaners. A film that details the experience of a second-generation Korean American family in Flushing, New York, Happy Cleaners gives an introspective look at the inter-generational and cultural conflicts that many families face.
The film follows the Chois, an immigrant family who has run the local dry cleaning shop for several years. Helmed by a strict matriarch (Hyang-hwa Lim), the family finds itself being slowly torn apart by business pressures as well as cultural conflicts. Dad (Charles Ryu) is belittled as a loser by his spouse, older daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) is dating a man who her family doesn’t approve of, while younger brother Kevin (Yun Jeong) is struggling to fulfill his dreams of moving to Los Angeles and opening a food truck (leading to some very gratifying food shots that appear on occasion). For Mrs. Choi, it’s hard for her to grapple with her family’s (in-her-mind) unwise decisions.
Asian American viewers will find that the story of Happy Cleaners may be all too relatable. From Kevin’s rebellious attitude to the embittered annoyance of Hyunny towards her mother, Happy Cleaners touches upon issues that are instantly recognizable. Cultural angst plays a major part within the story, and it’s obvious that each of these issues all come from a real place for the co-directors. Larger societal issues like gentrification also rear their ugly head, giving its audience a microcosm of just how deeply it has affected struggling families throughout America. But despite all of the internal and external battles the family faces, there’s a heartwarming story at the center of it all, told through unspoken offers of food in place of “I love you’s” and a kindred love for one another. As the family solves each of their issues one by one, there’s a sense that no matter how difficult things are in the moment, everything eventually works itself out. Family, after all, is forever.
Though the film could do with some added nuance (conflicts are literally spelled out for the viewer at times) and a tad less emotional dialogue, Happy Cleaners is a film that will surely stir up feelings for many Asian American viewers. For the directorial feature-length debut of Kim and Lee, Happy Cleaners is a solid entry point into the repertoire of Asian American cinema.