The Choi family are a family of Korean-Americans split along an immigrant fault line. Mom (Hyang-hwa Lim) and Dad (Charles Ryu) operate a failing dry cleaning business in Flushing, Queens while demanding the best from their American-born children, Hyunny (Yeena Sung), a hard-working professional, and Kevin (Yun Jeong), who is threatening to drop out of college and move cross-country to L.A. to start his own food truck.
Mom and Dad have some very strict values regarding success that their children don’t share. For Hyunny and Kevin, life is measure by more than just a dollar value, it’s about love, and passion. But those are luxuries bought by their parents’ hard work and sacrifice. But then why go through all of that to give your children an American life only to reject American values outright? It’s a hard spot familiar to many immigrant families in one way or another.
Happy Cleaners has a gently beating heart at its centre, but it doesn’t flinch away from the tension and drama that roil beneath a surface of filial piety and respect. Kevin and Hyunny recognize their unique positions, serving as links between the old country and the adopted homeland, and directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee are good at finding the nuance and the particularities faced by that first generation born in a new land. This division is intimately mined throughout the film, the family always at tug-of-war over the right way to embrace life and assimilate.
I don’t think Happy Cleaners has anything particularly new or ground-breaking to add to the immigrant conversation, but the film succeeds in its honesty and poignancy. For many immigrant families, this film may feel like a mirror being held in front of their own experience, but for the rest of us, Happy Cleaners is a window into the lives of those just trying to settle and be at peace in a new life.