Following appearances at seventeen festivals around the globe, including the Asian American International Film Festival, KAFFNY Infinite Cinema, and Queens World Film Festival based here in New York City, Happy Cleaners is getting its virtual streaming release starting February 12. Set in Flushing, Queens, the insightful, small-scale film is produced by KoreanAmericanStory.org, founded in 2010 to document the Korean-American experience. Written and directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee and cowritten by producer Kat Kim, Happy Cleaners is about a multigenerational immigrant family trying to make it in Flushing despite familiar hardships. “As Korean-Americans, we have called this country our home for over one hundred years. However, we have never really felt like true members of the family but mere guests in someone else’s house,” the filmmakers explain in their note about the film.
Gentle Mr. Choi (Charles Ryu) and stern Mrs. Choi (Hyanghwa Lim) operate a large dry cleaners on a busy corner. Their son, Kevin (Yun Jeong), works at Big D’s Grub Truck, a mobile food purveyor of Asian fusion cuisine — grinders, tacos, bulgogi, dumplings, and yuca fries. (Note: Big D’s is a real operation in NYC, and I highly recommend their grub.) Kevin wants to move to LA and start his own food truck business, but he doesn’t exactly have a plan. His mother is furious with him, insisting he stay in school and become a doctor, which he has no interest in. Kevin’s sister, Hyunny (Yeena Sung), works as a nurse in a hospital, contributing money to her parents and refereeing the battles between mother and son. But Mrs. Choi is also angry at Hyunny for refusing to break up with her boyfriend, Danny (Donald Chang), who she thinks will hold her back; Danny has recently quit school to work in a liquor store. When the new landlord of the dry cleaners (John Del Vecchio) starts poking around shortly before the lease is up for renewal — the store has been a part of the community for seventeen years — the Chois face an uncertain future in a country the parents still do not feel at home in.
Happy Cleaners might not be a wholly original tale, but it has an intimate, authentic feel as it deals with cultural identity, assimilation, and tradition. “It’s not my fault you live like this,” Kevin shouts at his father, who responds, “What do you know about our lives?” When Kevin and his mother argue about how to prepare a favorite family dish, she tells him, “It’s better bland than salty,” a metaphor for their different approaches to life. Overseeing it all is Kevin’s wise, feisty grandmother (Jaehee K. Wilder), who always knows just what to say. It’s all summed up by Hyunny, who explains, “This is the fate of being children of immigrants. It’s even embedded in our ethnicity in the form of a hyphen.” That multifaceted identity is expressed further in the song that plays over the closing credits, rap duo Year of the Ox’s “Word to the Hyphen.” Winner of the Narrative Audience Award at San Francisco’s CAAMFest Happy Cleaners might not break new ground, but it’s a realistic, heartfelt drama about the American dream and its impact on a Queens family that finds itself at a crossroads, in more ways than one.