American Dreaming: Happy Cleaners (2021)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of Hewes Pictures)

 The "American Dream" has largely been a myth for the vast majority of our population, especially as the wealth divide grotesquely expands with each passing year. However difficult it's been for most of us, it doesn't remotely compare to the experiences being lived by immigrants of color in our country. They're already at a disadvantage, be it the language barrier, having no familial relations or flat out bigotry and every day can feel like a true test of survival. 

Writer-directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee tackle this from a Korean-American family's perspective in their delightful debut Happy Cleaners. Set in Flushing, Queens, NY, we meet the Choi family at a volatile crossroads. Opening with an argument between the parents (Charles Ryu and Hyang-hwa Lim) and their son Kevin (Yun Jeong) over his future, we instantly learn everything we need to know. Kevin has dropped out of college to pursue a dream of opening a food truck in LA. His sister, Hyunny (Yeena Sung) works as a nurse and gives most of her pay to her struggling parents, whose dry cleaning business is in a steady decline. With a new landlord breathing down their neck, facing eviction and their familial bonds breaking, the Choi family must learn how to accept each other's differences before it's too late.

(Image courtesy of Hewes Pictures)

The film itself is a bit boilerplate and not unlike most family dramas you've seen but what makes
Happy Cleaners so special is how human it is. The chemistry and relationship between the family holds the film together and despite the differences in culture, there's a relatability that hits with a heavy sadness. If you come from a working class background, you've almost certainly had arguments with your parents that amount to "I'm upset because I want you to do better than I did." It's a universal fear that most parents have, especially ones living in the middle-to-lower class. The fear that your child might struggle is at the forefront of your mind and it can cloud most rational thought.

The most honest moments in the film spin out of situations like these. The mother screaming at the son to go back to school, the father standing meekly in the background, the daughter trying to break the two apart. It's something that feels so close to experiences many of us have had but the difference here is that this family has the added struggles of xenophobia and racism. One imagines that a heightened sense of wanting better for your children exists when you emigrate from somewhere else. It isn't enough that they succeed, they need to excel because of how unnecessarily difficult this country makes it for people of color to live let alone succeed. It makes the dynamic of the family all the more compelling. Especially when they finally get on the same page and actually listen to one another. Those moments contain the most heart of any in the film and it's where the film truly soars.

(Image Courtesy of Hewes Pictures)

There's a tremendous amount of truth and sadness in the mother. This is in large part thanks to a fantastic performance from Hyang-hwa Lim because the role itself veers dangerously close to being one dimensional. The role of the angry, screaming mother isn't an easy one and can often be the most thankless role in a film. There's a fine line between honesty and parody and while the film spends a bit too much time having the mother only exist as an angry force of nature, Lim provides the character much needed humanity. Behind every shout there's an oppressive sadness. Sadness that her life is in disrepair. Sadness that she's failed her children. She's terrified that there's no future for them and Lim plays that with more nuance than the film allows. She's terrific.

Nuance, or the lack thereof, might be the the only thing holding Happy Cleaners back from being truly great. It's a lovely slice of life but far too many scenes play with all the subtlety of being hit over the head with a mallet. It never derails the film by any means, especially when the caricatures are almost expressly relegated to the bigots and landlord with a shit-eating grin. It does make the film land with a little less of a punch than you'd like because the tone of the film whiplashes you all over the place. One moment you're having a touching father/son moment moving you to tears and then the next you're watching these thinly drawn moments of strife that solely exist for you to be outraged. They mostly work because those characters are reprehensible but it's a tough balancing act that never fully comes together.

As a debut, though? Happy Cleaners acquits itself very well. Lee and Kim are filmmakers to keep an eye on. They possess an appealing pop sensibility that suggests a bright future doing glossy studio pictures. In their film exists a giant, bleeding heart that you can't ignore. It's a universal story of a deep, familial love, a dispelling of the myth of the American Dream and the triumphs that come when you can put your insecurities aside and love one another. 

Lovely stuff.

-Brandon Streussnig