The collective sigh of relief that has resounded around the United States over the past couple of weeks, even while the pandemic continues and problems abound, is simultaneously quite understandable yet mostly inexplicable. Sure, it is great to move on from an objectively bad President who is also an objectively garbage human, but it is not like anyone is really that excited about Biden being in charge. US society has not exactly been electrified with the possibility of change, like it was in 2009, for instance. Yet even a cursory scroll through the social media app of your choice quickly reveals that the general anxiety level of the average US citizen has diminished significantly. A bland President who reduces any interesting idea to an imaginary consensus-seeking middle ground is so far superior to one who was a narcissistic black hole that everyone is content even with his milquetoastness.

Watching the film Happy Cleaners is a lot like waking up to Biden’s United States after living in Trump’s. Much of the film’s dialogue is wooden or tonally all over the place, the acting in multiple roles is simply bad and the pacing defies explanation, but the overall narrative of the film is so wholesome and the overall vibe is so comfortable that, even though it does not really make objective sense to feel this way, the film is enjoyable to watch. Plus, the many, many—probably too many, honestly—zoom-in shots of food are excellently composed and cannot but cause pangs of hunger (and not a Korean restaurant within a hundred miles of this reviewer!).

Happy Cleaners sees itself as an immigrant story of a Korean-American family in Flushing, New York. The characters are all adults in the same nuclear family: a mother, a father, their daughter, their son. The family is bilingual and each major character constantly code-switches, often within the same sentence. The characters are doggedly struggling to make ends meet, but their failures rarely feel like their fault. They are, both individually and as a unit, just the victims of cruel circumstance.

Really, though, Happy Cleaners, even with protagonists who are immigrants—it is not actually clear whether any of the four family members ever lived in Korea, so they may be second- and third-generation immigrants—this film is less an immigrant story and more a standard family drama. The parents have a long-running dry cleaning business and they feel that they have sacrificed so that their children can grasp that elusive American Dream and pursue rewarding and well-compensated careers. They do not wish their children to have the same financial struggles that they have had. But their kids, particularly the son Kevin (Yun Jeong), are intransigent and have their own plans.

None of this is at all unique to immigrants, of course. This generates inter-family conflict and lots of hurt feelings. Once the economic pressures of simply trying to exist in the 2010s US strikes the family hard, the generational divide between parents and children reaches a boiling point. Each of the four family members has to find a way to overcome their resentment, forgive their parents/children/siblings/spouse and move on with life. It is quite similar to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s recent Shoplifters, but with a more traditional family structure. It is a simple and satisfying story and one that has much less to do with being an immigrant and much more to do with living in economic precarity.

Happy Cleaners will leave viewers satisfied, in spite of its myriad flaws, much like the newest head of state. The comfort to be gained from something that is reliable and affirming of our positive feelings is worth pursuing and difficult to exaggerate. It is probably no surprise that much of Happy Cleaners focuses on the comfort food the family is constantly making and/or eating, as it serves largely the same purpose for the viewer.

Summary
Happy Cleaners will leave viewers satisfied, in spite of its myriad flaws; the comfort to be gained from something that is reliable and affirming of our positive feelings is worth pursuing and difficult to exaggerate.
52 %
Comfort Food
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