Happy Cleaners


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Happy Cleaners
"This film isn't really doing anything new but it's a solid reflection on a set of experiences that affect millions yet are significantly under-represented onscreen."

There's a scene in Julian Kim and Peter S Lee's Happy Cleaners in which Kevin (Yun Jeong) is confronted by his mother after arguing with a customer. Distressed by what has occurred, she tells him that he must always show respect for white Americans and treat them as if they're in the right because this is their country and that's what it takes to be tolerated, to be able to survive. He responds that he is American and he's not willing to be treated like that. It's a microcosm of the immigrant experience and the intergenerational differences in perspective that affect immigrant families in any number of societies, all around the world. This film isn't really doing anything new but it's a solid reflection on a set of experiences that affect millions yet are significantly under-represented onscreen.

Kevin's parents have owned their dry cleaning business for many years. Like a lot of small business owners, they've never really thought about expansion but have been happy simply to have money coming in. They're proud to have managed to make ends meet and have always assumed that their children will look after them in their old age. Alas, everything feels topsy turvy now with their son unwilling to go to medical school and their daughter financially supporting a boyfriend whose own ambitions are stymied by a need to look after his mother and sister. What's worse, they're so set in their ways with the business that they've failed to make any attempts at modernisation over the years. Customer numbers have declined and now it's close to becoming non-viable.

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Though it has a lot to say about the way immigrants are perceived and treated by the societies in which they have found themselves - noting, again, a generational difference - Happy Cleaners doesn't spend much time on members of wider US society. it's much more focused on internal family dynamics, with tensions arising around that parents' desire to be seen as useful, their sincere belief that one can achieve anything through hard work and their different cultural perspective on the importance of family verses individual life satisfaction. There's also room for positive family bonding. A grandmother does what she can to understand and support everybody, and there's a lot of focus on beautifully presented food.

Despite its multiple moments of drama, this is at heart a gentle film. Its bitter notes are sweetened by the lingering presence of the hope that underlies most migration. There is still the possibility of a bright future - it just requires acceptance of change and difference. People from immigrant communities will find a lot to relate to within it and a good number of in-jokes; there is also more widely accessible humour. Those with no such background may be prompted to look differently at those who do their dry cleaning and run other small scale local businesses, and recognise that they have lives and stories of their own.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2019
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Two generations of a Korean American family struggle to understand one another as their dry cleaning business struggles to survive.
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Director: Julian Kim, Peter S Lee

Writer: Kat Kim, Julian Kim, Peter S Lee

Starring: Charles Ryu, Hyanghwa Lim, Yeena Sung, Yun Jeong

Year: 2019

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US


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