Happy Cleaners, co-written and directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, is one of the most earnest identity crisis films to come out in quite a while. Filled to the brim with both heart and humor, this is an indie touring the festival circuit on which you will surely want to keep your eye.
The movie follows a family of Korean-American immigrants who are struggling to stay afloat because of their failing dry cleaning business and the external pressure they face from friends and neighbors. Although the story does get a bit melodramatic at times, it also allows for some very interesting scenes of conflict within the family.
The thing that makes this film so special, though, is that it addresses themes that are not frequently addressed in movies. You don’t often see films that are geared towards Asian-American immigrant audiences, and it is refreshing to see a movie that presents their experiences in a sincere, if sometimes over-the-top way.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are those in which the main characters, Kevin and Hyunny, as second-generation Americans, as they try to navigate their lives in America while still staying true to their familial roots in Korean culture. Granted, this struggle of trying to find one’s place in an unusual world has been well-documented before in movies, but rarely is a film able to relate this to the immigrant experience so effectively without feeling forced or cheesy.
The movie also explores the idea of pride in a very interesting way. The main conflict in the parents’ storyline comes from the father’s pride, which is tied to the society from which he came. He has what is certainly the most interesting and dynamic arc of any character in the film. His story, of coming to terms with the fact that the American Dream may not be so dream-like, is very impactful and relevant.
On an emotional level, the movie manages to be very resonant even if you may not connect with it personally or culturally. Although the film will likely cater most to Korean-American audiences for obvious reasons, the story is well-written and effective enough that it will be compelling for a majority of audiences. Perhaps most impressive is that the movie doesn’t pull on the heartstrings in an artificial way, instead eliciting sympathy with more subtle methods.
Surprisingly, one of the best parts of this film is its soundtrack. Typically, in an independent movie of this nature, the soundtrack doesn’t play a huge role in the film unless if it is themed around music. This movie, having no reliance on music in the story, uses music in a very interesting way to build the tone and pacing. With a less fitting accompaniment, the melodramatic elements easily could have become overwhelming.
The only area in which the film needed some additional work is the acting. The ensemble has great chemistry together, and all of the actors show charm and potential individually, but the delivery just isn’t there. Some of these issues could have been fixed with a solution as simple as shooting just a few more takes, allowing the delivery to come across more naturally.
Happy Cleaners is a sweet and surprising little indie. If this movie ends up playing at a festival near you, definitely take the time to check it out, as its touching story and unique perspective are what we could and should be seeing more in independent cinema.
Happy Cleaners was the Closing Night Film of the 2019 Asian-American International Film Festival.