8mm Review: ‘Happy Cleaners’

Happy Cleaners (2019)
Hyanghwa Lim, Charles Ryu, Yun Jeong, Yeena Sung. Written by
Kat Kim, Julian Kim, and Peter S. Lee. Directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee

If it seems (and it does) that new Asian American filmmakers keep making the same film about generational tension, cultural identity, and familial values, I suppose it’s because we continue to deal with these issues, or because there are as many ways to work through them as there are immigrant families: my half-Japanese experience in Honolulu isn’t like someone else’s Taiwanese experience in Southern California, and they are both stories worth telling.

For these reasons, I came away from Happy Cleaners encouraged, because if nothing else, the film’s familiar conflicts for new generations of Asian Americans mean we’re still coming over, still adding color and flavor to a country that appears alternately to have come a long way in embracing us and to have regressed so we’re not being embraced at all.

Happy Cleaners is owned by the Choi family in Flushing, New York, and despite the family’s hard work, the struggling dry cleaner may find itself without a lease in a few months, thanks to a weasely new landlord from the Weasely Caucasian Landlord multipack they must sell at Movieland Costco. Daughter Hyunny is some kind of medical professional, and college-aged son Kevin (backward baseball cap, one earring in each lobe) works in a food truck with aspirations of opening his own truck on the West Coast.

Arguments abound. Kevin fights with Hyunny. Hyunny fights with her boyfriend Danny. Dad fights with Mom, and Mom fights with everyone. Chances are you’ve seen this all before, if not in a movie then for sure in real life. Graduate from college first and then you can do whatever you want. My family will never accept you if you continue to work as a janitor. Do you want to end up like me, married to someone who can barely support his family?

I admit I said, “Oh, this again” more than once during the first act of the movie, but the film won me over with very good acting by all four principals and solid filmmaking everywhere else. There are a few self-aware shots, but mostly the camera work is well done. Lighting and sound quality put this well above most other Asian American indie films I’ve seen. Mostly, the directors don’t overdirect, the actors don’t overact, the writers don’t overwrite, and the soundtrack doesn’t oversoundtrack, although the Food Network style sound effects and cutting-board close-ups get a little out of hand more than once.

The use of language in this film sets it apart even from other Korean American movies. I appreciate the writers’ willingness to give us full-on Korean through much of the film, including what the movie’s Kickstarter page calls “a mix of Korean and English … we warmly label ‘Konglish’.” There’s nothing wrong with the Korean-accented English dialogue we usually get (it’s one of my favorite accents), but it’s great to hear the family speak the language these families speak.

I am most impressed by the writers’ delicate touch with conflict resolution. The fights themselves may be pyrotechnic at times, but the make-up scenes are gentle, sympathetic, and utterly believable. One-on-one, characters share a beer, or a bite of rice, or a whole meal, looking right at each other without overdoing the apologies, or sitting alongside each other, or nudging one another with a gentle toe. Physical proximity is an act of love, strong enough to heal the casual wounds of being in a family, something I’ve not seen much of in popular media. And props to the actors for not overdoing these excellent scenes. Shout-outs go especially to Charles Ryu as Dad and Yeena Sung as Hyunny.

Happy Cleaners is a well-made movie, a slight improvement on what seems to have become a genre: the Asian American Generations Movie. Despite my jadedness, I got teary at least twice, so everyone’s doing something right. A fraction of a bonus point for being set in Flushing, where a good chunk of the German-Italian-Irish side of my family lived.

7 out of 10. Check it out.

Happy Cleaners screens at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Wednesday, May 8 at 9:15 p.m. The filmmakers will be in attendance.

It also screens at CAAMFest Saturday, May 11 at 2:40 p.m. and Monday, May 13 at 9:10 p.m. Director Julian Kim is scheduled to attend the May 11 screening.

CAAMFEST36: Opening Night Film & Gala Red Carpet Premiere of ‘An American Story: Norman Mineta’

One of the things I have really enjoyed after having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 has been attending the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, which is now known as CAAMFest, now its 36th year.

This year’s opening night premiere was a documentary – AN AMERICAN STORY: NORMAN MINETA – about groundbreaking elected official and civil servant, Japanese American Norman Mineta – the first Asian American elected to San Jose, California City Council, first Asian American elected to be mayor of San Jose (first Asian American mayor of any major city in the continental United States), first Asian American Congressman elected in the continental United States, first Asian American to serve as a cabinet member to serve a President (AND also both in a Democratic and Republican administration). AND first Asian American to have an airport named after him (Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport).

Prior to the documentary’s premiere, Claudine Cheng and Willie Brown presented Norman Mineta with the APA Heritage Award for Lifetime Impact:

After watching the documentary, I realized that although I had kind of known about many of Mineta’s accomplishments, seeing his story told in its totality was amazing. (This slightly differed from my experience watching a documentary about Patsy Mink, another amazing Asian American, but someone I knew nothing about until a CAAMFEST screening). Mineta is a truly ground-and-glass-ceiling-breaking Asian American that all Americans should learn about.

The San Francisco Chronicle described the documentary and Mineta as:

“His life in politics, skillfully captured by director Dianne Fukami, stands in stark contrast to the current White House occupant. As a 10-term U.S. representative from Silicon Valley, Mineta kept his ego in check while passing seminal legislation, notably a bill granting reparations to Japanese Americans like his family who were incarcerated during World War II. His motto was “If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can do many things.””

After the screening, there was a Q&A session with Norman Mineta and the filmmakers:

There’s an effort to build upon documentary and develop educational material around Norman Mineta’s story, known as The Mineta Legacy Project. This reminds me of what Fred T. Korematsu Institute is doing since its inception. And after the Q&A, there was the annual gala party, held again at San Francisco Asian Art Museum, where I had the great honor to meet and get a photo with Mineta himself:

The gala is always a festive scene at a great venue:

CAAMFEST 2018 – May 10-24, San Francisco & Oakland

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One of the things that I appreciate about the San Francisco Bay Area after I moved here is the rich cultural activities in the area, and that includes the annual Asian American film festival known as CAAMFEST (known prior to 2013 as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) – quite a mouthful). The festival is organized by the Center of Asian American Media (CAAM), which is based in San Francisco.

This year kicks off with the premiere of a documentary about Norman Mineta:

““An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy” will have its world premiere Thursday night in San Francisco.

The film about the former San Jose mayor, Congressman and cabinet secretary to two U.S. presidents is the opening night film of the Center for Asian American Media film festival, known as CAAMFest. Mineta, 86, also will be honored by the city of San Francisco on opening night as part of the 40th anniversary festivities for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Mineta’s story really is a classic American tale of success, with the tragic irony that begins it: As an 11-year-old, he was interned with his family at Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II. (Even that story has a cinematic twist: Mineta met fellow Boy Scout and future Sen. Alan Simpson there.) In 1971, he became the first Asian-American elected mayor of a major U.S. city and served two decades in Congress, starting in 1975. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce by President Clinton in 2000 and served as Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush in 2001.”

I live near San Jose, and I’m often reminded about Mineta when I fly out of Mineta San Jose International Airport, which is named after him. And I’m a big fan of documentaries and recall seeing Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority at CAAMFest back in 2009 and being blown away about learning her story and surprised that I hadn’t known about her beforehand.

A big change from previous years is that the film festival is now being held in May, to coincide with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, instead of being held in February or March like it has in the past.

There are a quite a number of films to screened again this year. However, the San Francisco Chronicle has recommended the top 10 films to see this year, including (in alphabetical order):

Also, since 2013, the CAAMFEST organizers have expanded the nature of the festival beyond films to incorporate food and music programs and over time, increasingly more to convey cultural experience through the world’s most innovative Asian and Asian American artists.

This year’s festival theme – “Culture, In Every Sense”- is emphasized throughout the program with expanded music and food sections, a virtual reality project that is also produced by CAAM, and a special closing night performance by Bay Area native, Brenda Wong Aoki.

There’s even a Disoriented Comedy Show, where I’m looking forward seeing comedian Jenny Yang perform and finally meet her in person (I mostly know her for her funny videos posted on Facebook and elsewhere)!

Be sure to check out the CAAMFEST36 festival website as well as online program guide to learn about all the films and events going on.

CAAMFest 2016 – ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Panel with Vincent Rodriguez III & Vella Lovell

Besides the CAAMFest 2016 panel discussion with the co-creater Alan Yang and cast member Kelvin Yu of Netflix’s ‘Master of None,’ I got to attend the panel discussion with CW’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ actors Filipino American Vincent Rodriguez III and Vella Lovell on Sunday, March 13th.

https://youtu.be/Od9mD6JmYHo

To be honest, I did not know much about ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – I had heard about the show when mentioned about how 2015 was the year of Asian American television, with ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Dr. Ken.’ All I knew was the show starred a white woman, so I was wondering why the show was being lumped in with other Asian American shows. But I started to pay a little bit more attention after reading ‘‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Star Rachel Bloom on Why TV Needs More Asian Bros’:

“I really think diversity is simultaneous with telling new stories because, I don’t know, “White People Hanging Out in a Coffee Shop” has been done. Diversity is just more artistically interesting to me because you’re in new territory and the whole purpose of making art, in my head, is to explore topics that haven’t been explored.

I have never seen a show that took place in Southern California and portrayed people the way it is in Southern California. The prom king in my high school was Chinese and the prom queen was Japanese. We just didn’t think about it. It was like, “Oh, yeah, George and Mika? They’re the prom king and queen.” It wasn’t until I realized that every other show is set in some nebulous town on the East Coast or Midwest where everyone is white and Protestant… How boring is that? And that’s not truth. That’s not my truth.”

And then learned more about the premise of the show:

“Rebecca Bunch is a single woman who still longs for her longtime soul mate Josh, who dumped her after their summer fling during summer camp in 2005. In 2015, after being inspired by a TV commercial for a butter spread, she restarts her pursuit of Josh after she spots him in New York City. When he tells her that he is moving to West Covina, California (“Just two hours from the beach, four hours in traffic”), Rebecca decides to move there too, hoping that it will give her a fresh start and bring her closer to Josh. She ditches her job in New York and moves there. “

So the big deal of course is that the character Rebecca has the hots for her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be an Asian American male / Filipino American (what a concept!). So I did get around to watching the first episode, but hadn’t actually finished watching it …. But I was still excited to attend the panel discussion.

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Masashi Niwano, CAAMFest Festival & Exhibitions Director and emcee / interviewer (and former 8Asians blogger) Dino-Ray Ramos made some welcoming remarks, then a viewing of “Thanksgiving” episode then a discussion with Vincent & Vella facilitated by Dino, and ending with a Q&A session with the audience.

I’m glad I was able to watch the ‘Thanksgiving’ episode – because I was kind of blown away by it. In that episode, Rachel gets herself invited to Josh’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner (Josh is still dating dumb-but-HOT Latina Valencia) and we get to see a LARGE Filipino family get-together for Thanksgiving. And to be honest, I really, really related to the character of Greg who was taking care of his sick father – kind of a bit too real for me …

After the episode viewing of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,’ the panel discussion began with both Vincent & Vella describing what brought them to ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.’ Vincent has been acting since high school and has his up’s and down’s, from traveling shows to television over the past decade+. (Given how relatively young he looked,  I was pretty surprised.) When he got the script for the casting, he was blown away that the character of Josh was pretty much like him. Vella, who is more of a recent college graduate of Julliard School and has a bachelor’s degree from New York University.

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If you’ve got some time, I’d encourage you to watch the panel and audience Q&A.

CAAMFest 2016: March 10 – 20, 2016 | San Francisco & Oakland

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One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years while living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1999 is the the annual Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Film Festival, better known as CAAMFest, “Celebrating Asian American Film, Music and Food.” This year’s festival is taking place this March 10 – 20, 2016 in San Francisco & Oakland.

I’ve seen terrific movies over the years, highlights which have included Bend It Like Beckham, LINSANITY and Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority in the past, and most recently as of last year, Seoul Searching. This year’s Opening Night presentation is the Bay Area premiere of TYRUS:

TYRUS is an inspirational documentary about the art, life, and enduring impact of 105 year-old pioneering Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong, best known for the conceptual artwork that gave Walt Disney’s Bambi its distinctive and unforgettable look.”

You can catch trailers of most of the films at CAAMFest here on YouTube

For more information about the festival http://caamfest.com/2016/

You can also check out the program guide here:

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Be sure to buy tickets in advance if you can, since a lot of the films are often sold out.

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival Now CAAMFest – 3/14 – 3/24

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the first annual events I attended was the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). Yes, that is quite a mouthful, so maybe that is why the San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media – CAAM  (which used to be known by the archaic National Asian American Telecommunications Association) re-branded the traditionally February / March film festival as CAAMFest. CAAM also throws a terrific party to kickoff the film festival usually at the Asian Art Museum. CAAMFest runs from Thursday, March 14th to Sunday, March 24th.

I’m not sure when or what movie I first saw at the film festival, but I clearly remember seeing two fantastic films at the film festival in my early days of attending: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as Bend It Like Beckham in 2003, where director Gurinder Chadha had actually met her future husband at the film festival something like ten years prior. At the time, I had no idea who David Beckham was nor what it meant to “bend it like Beckham” (which is to kick and  ‘bend’ a soccer ball into the opponent’s goal). That was also my first memory of the lovely and talented actress Keira Knightley.

Another film I’ve seen at the film festival that I recall is the interesting documentary about Yao Ming’s first year in the NBA, Year of the Yao. And last year, I saw the terrific CAAM-supported documentary, Mr. Cao Goes To Washington.

This year’s showcase film kicking off the film festival will be LINSANITY, a documentary about NBA basketball player, Houston Rockets’ Jeremy Lin.

http://youtu.be/qcwL7NxclzY

LINSANITY premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, which Jeremy Lin attended during the later part of the Q&A session, where it has garnered a lot of glowing reviews. I can’t wait to see the documentary and a whole lot of other films. If you have any interest in independent films, definitely check out CAAMFest!