Happy Cleaners @ Asian American International Film Festival

Directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee really tap into the immigrant experience with their film Happy Cleaners. It shows that experience from several different perspectives or generations.

This excellent film was selected as the closing night film for the Asian American International Film Festival. An ode to a film which some may see as merely entertaining, but in actuality it is a window into the life of many first or second generation Americans. The story will appeal to all, whether you see yourself in one of the characters’ shoes or not. Meaning it is a film for people of all races and social backgrounds. A universal story as most, if not all, of us can relate to what happens here.

Set in today’s New York City with a Korean family struggling to make ends meet. The Chos are a hard working family of four which resides in Flushing, Queens. Dad (Charles Ryu – first feature length film) and Mom (Hyang-hwa Lim – first feature length film) operate and work at a dry cleaners while son Kevin (Yun Jeong – first feature length films) is lost thinking he will drop out of school and move to Los Angeles to work in the food industry and daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung – first feature length film) works as a nurse. While mother and son argue about his future the family also has to deal with the fact that the new owner of the property the dry cleaner is in tells them he wants them out.

Life, which was trying to begin with, becomes even more so when they cannot find an affordable property to open another dry cleaners in. Mom and Dad have a large financial burden as they declared bankruptcy previously. The only person now working at a solid job is Hyunny, who is going through issues with her long term boyfriend Danny (Donald Chang – Impossible Monsters).

A duel purpose is fulfilled here. The voice of the Korean community across the United States gets screen time as well as the experience of all immigrant families. Financial instability, long work hours and trouble finding jobs they can support themselves on for a variety of reasons all exist alongside the struggle to keep their culture while being subsumed by the American way of living. The battle is constant and totally uphill. It is something that most “white” people don’t have to deal with. While some may be intimidated by the cultures that these varieties of immigrant populations bring with them, it is through films like this we see that they are not so different. Plus, we get introduced to some really great food 😉

Through Happy Cleaners we also see the important roles which immigrants play within the U.S. (and Canada). It also works on another level in that it is a rather intimate film. We get to, in a very short time, get close to the Cho family. Watch their interactions, fights, cooking, work, interpersonal relations, struggles to stay financially afloat, and desire to remain Korean. Everyday events and discussions ensue. The two generations here – parents who were born somewhere else and kids born in the U.S. – clash. Frequently and hard. They both are coming from different perspectives and understandings of who they are within the larger community. All this results in a life which is not easy. On any level.

As a viewer who is not part of this community, you begin to understand more just a few minutes in. A whole aspect of their world, which previously had been hidden, opens up. You begin to understand why certain cultures gravitate towards certain industries (low input of money to start up, fewer language restrictions). Through these types of jobs the first generation to arrive works incredibly hard to give the subsequent ones opportunities they never had. This is their route to the pursuit of the American dream.

The four main actors here are relative rookies and bring plenty of realism to their roles. Totally inhabit the characters they portray. So much so that at times I felt like I was watching a documentary. Props to them (and the screenwriters and directors)!

A true independent film which was funded via Kickstarter and supported by koreanamericanstory.com.

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