Movie Review: “Happy Cleaners” and the burden of Korean-American expectations

Good storytelling skates by on the tension between what we see, read or hear unfold, and what we hope or fear might happen as the tale unfolds. Dickens or “Dumb & Dumber,” it’s all about meeting or willfully defying our expectations, great or otherwise.

“Happy Cleaners” is a Korean-American immigrants and their children drama, a story of the Korean dream transported to America and burdens passed from generation to generation. It’s a movie built on expectations that it lets us cling to, even if we fear the filmmakers have no intention of giving we the viewers our wish or their characters an easy way out.

It’s about a Flushing, N.Y. dry cleaning business run by first-generation immigrants. Mom (Hyang-hwa Lim) is the driven one, Dad (Charles Ryu) is somewhat hapless, clinging to his pride and his masculinity in the face of a lifetime of hard, low-margins labor.

Their daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) is a nurse, resigned to how they are, propping up their struggle as best she can. Son Kevin (Yun Jeong) is in open rebellion. He’s dropped out of college, abandoning Mom’s dream of “a medical degree.” He’s into food, works in a food truck and longs to try his hand in Los Angeles.

“It’s not my fault you work this this,” is how a lot of their arguments end, followed by Kevin storming out.

The sexism here is masked in “traditional gender roles,” with the petulant, indulged son refusing to carry the weight of what his family wants and the daughter left to pick up the slack.

Hyunny is in love, but she’s furious that beau Danny (Donald Chang) is letting his own family’s struggle — they have a liquor store — put his education, and any future he might have with Hyunny, on hold.

“Are you gonna work like this forEVER?”

It may be pragmatic, but it’s certainly not helpful of Mom to weigh in on that, in Korean (with English subitles).

“Break up with him immediately.”

The dry cleaning business is a struggle, with equipment failures, a new landlord and the debts of a previous business gamble — a restaurant venture years before — still hanging over them.

Danny may seem buried under responsibilities and Kevin all-too-eager to shed his, but Hyunny, the “success” in this story, hears herself parroting her parents’ work-ethic mantra, one that you can also hear in the Korean American drama “Minari.”

“Anything is possible if you work your ass off.”

It was always thus. It takes a generation or two for newcomers to America to realize that while much is indeed possible here through hard work, “anything” is an overreach. Some never stop struggling and never get their heads above water. Some drown.

First-time feature co-writer/directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee create character “types” and then set out, with the aid of a pretty good cast, to upend our expectations of these people and what would appear to be their fate — good or bad.

Lim’s Mom is brittle, judgmental but no harridan. She’s never so outspoken that Kevin won’t come back after storming out, and Kevin is never so angry that he can’t see himself back under their roof, learning cooking tips from Mom and when she visits, Grandma (Jaehee Wilder).

Dad is close to pitiable, cowed by a jerk landlord or irate customer, deferring to his wife but stoically staying on task and maintaining their current course, even if the ship is taking on water.

Sung’s Hyunny is the character many of us will identify with, straddling the middle ground between her parents’ “work hard and it’ll work out” notions and Kevin’s realizations that this life isn’t worth repeating. She’s just as trapped and smart enough to realize that, even if her lashing out is only at her overwhelmed boyfriend.

The arrival of “Happy Cleaners” at almost the same time as the Oscar-buzzed “Minari” (Feb. 12) reinforces “Tiger Mom” and “work hard” cultural stereotypes, and the stories sync up on with a “gamble everything for a chance to get ahead, even if you fail” theme as well.

The honesty of these stories, and 2017’s “Gook,” is filmmakers’ staring without blinking at the generational schisms, the ongoing sting of “YOU people” racism and the inevitable realization that whatever parents went through to get them here, the expectations they saddle their kids with don’t always pay off with achievement. Sometimes, their only benefit is giving you the courage to defy them.

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, smoking

Cast: Hyang-hwa Lim, Yun Jeong, Yeena Sung, Charles Ryu, Donald Chang and Jaehee Wilder.

Credits: Directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, script by Julian Kim, pat Kim and Peter S. Lee. A Passion River release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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