“Have you ever wondered if our family is blessed or cursed?”
— Kevin Choi
Being a third or longer-generation child in the U.S. is sometimes hard enough: but be a child of immigrant parents steeped in the ways of the old country. My pop’s parents came here from Europe and his dad, my grandfather, never got on board with the “wild life” of Americans. The stories my father told me of him and his father’s battles over the “old” vs. “the new” were many and shaped the values I hold today. The most eye-opening aspect of Happy Cleaners: regardless of your family’s origin of birth, as much as we are different is how much we are the same; the same in our trials, tribulations, and values.
And I am reminded that a skin cell is just that: a cell filled with melanin.
One day, as a young man, as I conducted business at — ironically enough — a dry cleaner as I picked up my suits and pressed shirts, I noticed a person come to stand next to me at the counter. His hands, which met at the wrist with a long-sleeve business shirt, were white (actual albino-to-translucent). When I lifted my head to greet the man, he was an African-American. At the time, I was aware of the skin condition know as vitiligo, as result of Michael Jackson’s affliction, but never experienced it close and personal: it was an eye-opening experience for me. At that moment, I realized that we are all the same, inside and out: the only difference between us is the pigmentation in our skin cells. After that, the loves and joy, the trials and tribulations, the disappoints and triumphs we experience are all the same. We walk the same road, together, and our goals are all the same: for the Earth really is a single, perfect sphere.
So goes the plight of Korean-American Kevin Choi. His mother and father (the fantastic Hyang-hwa Lim Charles Ryu) struggle to instill traditional homeland values in their American-born children Kevin and Hyunny (the equally stellar Yun Jeong and Yeena Sung) tempted-influenced by all that western culture has to offer. Their parents operate a struggling dry cleaning business in Flushing, Queens, with the hope their strict values and hard work will inspire their children: they instead succeed in pushing their children away. And with that, the children struggle with the dichotomy of their lives: Why did their parents make the personal sacrifices to give their children a better life in America, only to caution and forbid their children the ways of American life. Does family loyalty go to the point where the children must carry on a family business — along with their family’s debts. Does one give up their dreams (in Kevin’s case, moving to Los Angeles) for family?
Happy Cleaners is the dual feature film writing and directing debut by New York City born-and-bred Korean-American animator and documentary-reality television editor Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee; the filmmaking duo previously worked on — along with actor Yun Jeong (here, as Kevin, in his leading man debut) — on the dramatic short, Call Taxi (2016). Well-received on the festival circuit, winning an “Audience Award for Best Narrative” at the 2019 CAAMFest and “Emerging Filmmaker Award” at the VC FilmFest at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the film is now available across all domestic streaming platforms.
In a Hallmark and Lifetime drama-glut cableverse that’s nullified the family drama genre at the theatrical level, Happy Cleaners is a film that reminds us that poignant family dramas (Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut Ordinary People comes to mind) can still be brought to theater screens to inspire our intellects and stir our souls. In a current Hollywood obsessed with tentpole movies and explosive popcorn balls of the comic book (Wonder Woman 1984 is now out in theaters) and Micheal Bay variety (his latest Transformers flick is in pre-production), it’s nice to see filmmakers with a desire to bring family dramas to the screen. Hopefully, Hollywood will remember Kim and Lee come the 2021 award season.
You can enjoy this U.S.-shot, English-language film (with occasion English-Korean subtitles) courtesy of Korean American Story.org via all the usual online streaming platforms. The mission of the non-profit organization is to capture, create, preserve and share the stories of the Korean American experience by supporting and promoting storytelling in all forms that explore and reflect the ever evolving Korean American story. KAS seeks to be an inclusive hub that bridges gaps between communities and desires to instill cultural awareness and pride among the Korean American community.
And with films like Happy Cleaners, they’ve succeed. And we look forward to their next production.