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Thread: HAPPY CLEANERS (Julian Kim, Peter S. Lee 2018)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    HAPPY CLEANERS (Julian Kim, Peter S. Lee 2018)



    Koreans in America: generations in conflict still pull together

    The two generations of the Korean-American immigrant Choi family in Flushing, Queens battle it out as their dry cleaning business is dismantled by an unsympathetic landlord and they must scramble to stay economically afloat in the ethnically realistic first feature Happy Cleaners. A cornerstone of the immigrant family dynamic is language. The mother and father (Hyanghwa Lim and Charles Ryu) speak to each other and their kids in Korean, while the kids mostly, though not always, answer in English. This more than anything defines the distance between the generations and the degree to which each generation can bridge it.

    Mom and dad have worked hard to run a dry-cleaning establishment for 17 years, but they don't own the store, nor are they keeping up with modern trends. In short, there is no security, no American Dream here. As if this weren't already clear, the owner of the store is replaced and the new owner wants to get something else to occupy the space. A dry cleaners evidently just doesn't sound cool to him.

    Happy Cleaners is about generational conflict, immigrant insecurity, and ultimately of how an immigrant family, despite everything, pulls together. It's not a fun picture (couldn't this movie have used more humor and charm?) but it is impressive to see how despite the differences, inbred Korean traditions of hard work and loyalty prevail to bind the four family members together. Everybody is willing to make sacrifices and compromises to stay afloat, and it appears that it works.

    Mom is a grump and a scold. She yells at the very quiet dad and at their two children, millennials Kevin (Yun Jeong) and his sister Hyunny (Yeena Sung). The offspring displease her for different reasons. Kevin has dropped out of college and plans to move to Los Angeles to run a food truck. But Kevin isn't totally rejecting his family in this plan, because his mother's cooking inspired him. She produces delicious traditional Korean dishes, and dinner is the time when there is a ray of happiness shared by all four family members. But mom constantly objects to Kevin's new plan and his abandonment of college. She expected him to become a professional.

    Hyunny lands mom's disapproval for her relationship with her boyfriend Danny, who's in a dead-end job and has dropped out of summer school to work extra hours, because his mother is unwell. Danny's family skirts on the same economic edge as Kevin and Hyunny's, and he and Hyunny have been going together for six years, but all they can afford to do on dates is go to the park. So their relationship seems dead-end too. But it's not that they don't love each other.

    When the bad news comes that they're losing Happy Cleaners, the couple are undaunted, quickly finding other jobs (hers is cooking and his is delivery): they can draw both on their humility and their connections in the community. The surprises are that this disaster causes mom to come down off her high horse and start being nice to Danny and accepting of Kevin's L.A. plans. Another one is that Kevin postpones those to help keep the family financially afloat.

    Happy Cleaners is an absolutely clear and sure-footed film. Sometimes it seems as drab and dutiful as the older generation of Korean immigrants it depicts, and whom the two directors obviously know so well. But you can also see it as, in its more modern, American way, a film as delicately nuanced in its depiction of generations as the work of the Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu.

    Happy Cleaners, 98 mins., written and directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, debuts at two West Coast Asian film festivals. It premieres at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film festival Wed. May 8 9:15 pm at Regal LA Live, and is also included showing at San Francisco's CAAMFest37 (at the AMC Kabuki 8) Sat. May 11 at 2:40 pm and Mon. May 13 at 9:10 pm.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-07-2019 at 09:35 PM.


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