Happy Cleaners seems to be an ironic name for this film. It depicts the experience of the Choi family, a Korean immigrant couple and their American-born kids struggling to get by in the Flushing neighborhood of New York City.
Kevin (Yun Jeong) and his sister Hyunny (Yeena Sung) routinely clash with their complacent father and verbally abusive mother as they attempt to build lives of their own. Kevin wants to move away and start his own food truck. Hyunny plays the part of the responsible older sister who helps her family with the rent, but still gets grief as her mother disapproves of Hyunny’s financially struggling boyfriend. The family tension is only exacerbated when the dry cleaning business the parents have been living on for the better part of 20 years starts to go downhill.
It is a deeply personal story for many families in America, including the film’s directors and writers Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee. It’s the story of both immigrant parents and their children. The film gives a very empathetic picture of the pains of both sides of an immigrant family. You see the deep anxiety of parents who want what they consider to be the best thing for their kids and are terrified of seeing their children struggle the way they have struggled. You also see the frustrations of children trying to reconcile the world their parents grew up in with the world they’re growing up in. You as the viewer even start to empathize with Kevin and Hyunny’s irritation with their parents. Both sides figuratively bang their heads on the wall as they try to get through to each other.
Right from the beginning, the film dives into aspects of life in a Korean-American family that feel rather cliché. The opening scene is Kevin being yelled at by his overbearing mother about how his life will be horrible if he doesn’t finish college. Scenes like this, however, are cliché for a reason. Indeed, they’re hardly unique Korean-Americans, and the film is riddled with them. So much so that at times the movie feels more like a documentary than anything else. The meaning or point of many of the scenes could’ve been displayed just as well if not better had script contained a little more subtlety.
There also seems to be a deeper message of how family is an ongoing journey rather than a destination. This is a message anyone can appreciate regardless of their ancestry or cultural background.