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Film Review: “Happy Cleaners” Thoughtfully Explores the Korean-American Experience

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 11th, 2021

Film poster: “Happy Cleaners”

Happy Cleaners (Julian Kim/Peter S. Lee, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

The Choi family is in crisis. Son Kevin has dropped out of school and wants to leave the family nest in Flushing, NY, for Los Angeles, where he hopes to make his fortune running a food truck. Daughter Hyunny, though gainfully employed as a nurse, finds that her long-term relationship with the man she thought would be her life partner may not survive both his own feelings of financial inadequacy and her mother’s worry about the same. Worst of all, Mom and Dad appear about to lose their dry-cleaning business after a new landlord takes over. All of this is wrapped up in the day-to-day concerns of Korean immigrants in America, both first and second generation. Such is the backdrop of Happy Cleaners, from directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, making their feature debut. With genuine pathos, they examine the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a quartet of fascinating cinematic protagonists.

The film is also a celebration of Korean cooking and culture, as Kevin’s quest to find the perfect recipes to take with him leads to culinary shots that rival the best food porn. The Choi kids may be fully assimilated into the country of their birth, speaking better English than Korean, but they still feel intensely divided by their status as citizens of color, still seen as foreigners by many. The Choi parents do not regret their decision to emigrate, yet Mom, especially, questions other choices, including that of the man she married. It’s heavy material, thoughtfully portrayed by all involved, from Charles Ryu and Hyang-hwa Lim as the elder Chois to Yeena Sung and Yun Jeong as Hyunny and Kevin. There’s also an occasional light humor that comes through, as well, such as when Danny (Donald Chang), Hyunny’s boyfriend, chuckles over a barista’s inability to get his girlfriend’s name right. Sometimes laughter is the only way through.

l-r: Hyang-hwa Lim, Yeena Sung, Yun Jeong and Charles Ryu in HAPPY CLEANERS ©Passion River Films

It’s the small touches that count here, always representative of the larger stakes, whether they be of Korean, American or Korean-American concern. Still, the movie has its awkward moments, of script and performance, where the overuse of exposition cannot quite sound natural emerging from the actors’ mouths. At these times, it is clear that Kim and Lee worry a little too much about making the story accessible to people who haven’t lived it, rather than focusing on the behavior and words from those who have. Despite this, Happy Cleaners remains, at all times, committed to its characters’ full expression of self and exploration of identity. By the end, we feel many emotions beyond happiness, all equally genuine.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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