There’s a point in the documentary, “Liquor Store Dreams,” where I felt that director So Yun Um didn’t understand what her father Hae Sup was saying and in today’s gun-happy climate, his words had more weight than when this was filmed. In her first feature-length film, So Yun Um documents what she knows: The life of a small, family-run liquor store, an expansion of her five-minute short “Liquor Store Babies.”
So Yun Um was a liquor store baby. Her parents worked 15 hours a day, 365 days a year at their liquor store in Long Beach, California. As he’s mopping the store’s floor, her father notes that his first job was office cleaning. Despite the long hours and hard work, he is grateful for his small business. “I’m not educated. I’m not good at English. I don’t have much to boast about,” Hae Sup says in Korean (translated into English subtitles).
For So Yun Um, the reality of her family’s life and that of her friend, Danny, a second-generation liquor store baby, is totally different from what she sees on the silver screen. There’s a stereotype of the “angry Korean owner,” a role that is both “farcical and disposable” in movies such as the 1989 “Do the Right Thing” or the 1993 “Falling Down.”
So Yun Um was ten when her parents purchased their liquor store. Both she and her sister have worked there and not all of their experiences were pleasant. While her parents remember the LA Riots–her father knew someone who was on the rooftop protecting Korean American-owned property–neither Danny nor So Yun Um or their families were affected like so many other Korean Americans. Danny was nine when his family opened their Skid Row liquor store, in 1993–a year after the LA Riots. Yet both families are acutely aware of the problematic cross cultural misunderstandings. So Yun Um includes Black voices, such as Mark, a homeless man who works at Danny’s store. Mark mentions that he was warned against working at the Skid Row store by other people.
One can’t mention Korean American liquor stores in Los Angeles without touching on two things: The LA Riots and the death of a young Black school girl. While reviewing footage of the LA Riots, her father asks, “Do you steal because you are frustrated?” Because after all, “How many liquor store owners have died?” and some of these fatal robberies were committed by Black people. When Latasha Harlins–the 15-year-old girl who was fatally shot by the 49-year-old Korean American Soon Ja Du, is brought up, her father says that people make mistakes. Although So Yun Um is sure that her father would never kill at person, he says you can never know and that’s why he never owned a gun.
As one might expect from Korean parents, her parents wish she was married and her father would prefer that she had a regular job instead of making films. On the other hand, Danny seems to have moved on to better things. Danny had personally delivered his resume to the Nike Headquarters by running from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon–1,268 miles in 45 days. Although he was hired, he soon found himself flying back to Los Angeles twice a month to help out his family with their liquor store. When his father died, he quit his Nike dream job and began working at the Skid Row liquor store. He had plans to promote better understanding between his customers and his family, but then the pandemic began and both liquor stores faced pandemic-related problems.
Both Danny and So Yun Um try to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. What we don’t see is the chaos and the looting that accompanied the main illegal (no permits had been pulled) 30 May 2020 Los Angeles Black Lives Matter March from Fairfax to Beverly Hills and the widespread looting in Santa Monica on Sunday, 31 May 2020. Of course, not all of the Black Lives Matter protests were violent and involved vandalism and looting. The majority where peaceful, but some were not. Still, one can’t help but hear the echo of Hae Sup’s words, “Do you steal because you are frustrated?”
There are lingering questions. One of the lasting images of the LA Riots of 1992 were the rooftop Korean Americans confidently armed, standing in defense of property when the LAPD were failing them. Didn’t Hae Sup go through the compulsory military service in South Korea? Wouldn’t he have trained to use guns? He’s very insistent that one never knows how one will react in the moment and, of Soon Ja Du, he seems to say she did make a mistake, an irreversible one. Yet when he mentioned that Korean American liquor store owners had died, I could not remember any large-scale media coverage. “We don’t protest when our people die,” Hae Sup notes. While I wish So Yun Um had more objectively explored her father’s sentiments about guns and about the looting during two different riots–one in 1992 due to the verdict of the Rodney King trial in Simi Valley and then in the Black Lives Matter activism of 2020, this documentary is a very personal, intimate film about two families, providing sincere faces to stand in contrast to the stereotype.
Despite its shortcomings, “Liquor Store Dreams” is an engaging story about dreams achieved, dreams tragically lost and about So Yun Um, who says, “I’m a liquor store baby and I have big dreams.” With this debut documentary, she is off to a promising start.
“Liquor Store Dreams” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June of last year. It also screened last year at the Busan International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, the Hawai’i International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival. This year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, it won the Local Jury Award. The film screening on Wednesday, 10 May 2023 at the Gardena Cinema in Gardena, Ca. This documentary will be available to buy or rent on Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes from 26 Mary 2023.