Writers: Julian Kim, Peter S. Lee and Kat Kim
Directors: Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee
Happy Cleaners isn’t a belated American equivalent to My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Frears’ pivotal film of 1985. Instead, this is a drama about a South Korean family trying to keep hold of its dry-cleaning business in New York in the face of rising rents. While the theme of family is key here, Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s film is also gently scathing of the American Dream.
It may be summer in New York’s Flushing, but most of the characters are working too hard to enjoy it. Mom and Dad work long hours at their dry-cleaning shop but they are struggling with their faulty equipment, and the racks with customers’ clothes are looking sparse. Their daughter Hyunny works as a doctor at the local hospital while their son Kevin has just dropped out of school to work in a food truck selling tacos. Hyunny’s boyfriend cleans in the daytime and works in a liquor shop at night. Even the 75-year old grandmother is back at work, cooking Korean food to sell.
The lure of America has trapped generations of optimistic immigrants into low paying jobs for them and their children. Coming to America was meant to make life easier but Danny is working just as hard as his father, and has almost given up on his dreams in going to college. Hyunny, though, is an American success, working hard at school and getting the right grades. You think her parents would be proud of her, but they fret more about their son Kevin and his dream to run a food truck in LA.
The film begins with Kevin preparing to leave for the West Coast, but when he sees the precarious nature of his parents’ business, and the way they are treated by white Americans, he decides to delay his plans and help in the dry cleaning shop. With his support the business thrives but when the new landlord threatens to cancel the lease, the family, instead of pulling together, falls apart.
Remarkably, Happy Cleaners, written by Kim and Lee with Kath Kim, is never predictable and while there are plenty of avenues for the story to go in, its end is always in doubt, and fortunately, it remains bittersweet, and never betrays its early criticism of the American Dream. For the most part, the acting is understated, and the camera is unfussy, only highlighting New York’s summer light and Flushing’s sparsely peopled streets.
As Mr Choi, Charles Ryu excels in despondency, and it’s hard not to feel for him, especially with his endless politeness, even with those who are rude to him and who hardly bother to conceal their racism. Also good, is Yeena Sung who plays Hyunny and she’s able to convey her sense of isolation, slowly sensing that America’s opportunities are mirages while still trying to live up to her mother’s aspirations in leading a better life than she managed. Hyang-hwa Lim, as Mrs Choi, has a difficult role to play, but later in the film there are some wonderful scenes where she softens considerably as she begins to accept that failure might have other rewards.
It’s in these scenes, too, that Yun Jeong as Kevin settles into his role. His character is underwritten and as such he’s not always convincing, particularly when he’s angry, but when he’s sullen and uncommunicative, he’s believable, still a obstinate teenager. Although a minor character, Danny has more flesh to his story, and Donald Chang allows us to guess at Danny’s future, which will come without the usual Hollywood happy ending.
It’s a credit to all involved that they resist a feel-good remedy to the Chois’ problems, and the result is a considered family drama. It could do with some trimming here and there, but apart from these fluffy moments, Happy Cleaners is as ready to be picked up as a dress under cellophane.
Released in the US on 5 February 2021, and on digital platforms on 12 February 2021