In her directorial debut Liquor Store Dreams, So Yun Um takes on the ambitious endeavour of examining her personal experiences growing up in a family of Korean-American immigrants running a liquor store business. This documentary is striking in its exploration of a business that has become almost synonymous with the Korean-American immigrant identity, before digging deeper into the generational trauma and complications associated with it. The communal spirit is celebrated, but also interwoven with underlying guilt and tension. While at times Liquor Store Dreams becomes unwieldy and buckles under the pressure of its weighty themes and short run time, So’s film is a remarkable achievement.
Liquor Store Dreams begins with showing the day-to-day running of the family business, before shifting to provide a wider contextual overview of the liquor store industry. So provides some intriguing insights into the cultural depiction of Korean-American run liquor stores in cinema, ranging from Do the Right Thing to Falling Down, and using them to unravel the racial tensions revolving around them. So describes the historical conflict between Korean and Black communities through the murder of a young Black girl, Latasha Harlins, by Korean shop owner Soo Da-jun, which ignited the LA Riots of 1992 alongside the murder of Rodney King.
The film gives some fascinating insights by various shop owners on the history of these stores as a diasporic tradition, shifting from one demographic to the next, from the Jewish community to the Japanese and now Korean community. So also hones in on another ‘liquor store baby,’ Danny Park, who left his job at Nike headquarters giving up on the American dream to pick up the mantle of his late father’s store. Showing both of their stories, and the way the responsibility of the business consumes their lives in such a deep-rooted way, gives a well-rounded and insightful look into the complex feelings both individuals have towards their stores, as symbols of family unity and a heavy burden.
Conversations between So and Park lead to potent observations, such as how their parents were once sons and daughters like themselves, representing the cyclical patterns of diaspora families. Liquor Store Dreams is built around such interactions and conversations that unravel the layers of their shared experience. Another notable example comes from So’s interactions with her father with whom she shares a somewhat prickly relationship. In one of the most dynamic strands of the documentary, So does not shy away from the darker edges when she shows footage of rows between her and her father.
So lets us experience the heated nature of these conflicts and the uncomfortable notions of her father: denying the contribution of liquor stores in manifesting racial tensions through the LA riots, dismissing the George Floyd protests as not being the “right” way to raise awareness, and rejecting the notion of Asian silence being complicit to White supremacy. All of this builds to a potent scene where So shows her father the very footage she captures, to which he responds with a more measured manner, reflecting on how he may have been misguided and gotten things wrong.
It’s in such ways that So makes an impact with the documentary form, not just as a means of representation, but as a means of communication and self-reflection. Through her voice-over narration she gives insights into her process of collecting footage and asserting her filmmaking skills, ruminating as much on her obligations as a storyteller as the story she is telling. One of the most poignant issues addressed throughout Liquor Store Dreams is how communication and reflection of this kind is of utmost importance.
So presents conversations of a more casual nature, and others on topics that may be more difficult to deal with. In turn, we do not get a singular outlook on liquor stores but an expansive consideration. Park’s discussion about how he’d hoped his late father could find “new dreams beyond survival” makes for one of the most hard-hitting reflections of the immigrant struggle and dilemma I’ve seen in recent memory.
At its best, Liquor Store Dreams uses the discourse to break the silence often self-imposed by immigrants to evade difficult conversations about the past. When breakthroughs are made, they are incredibly powerful, and most importantly well-earned.
Though a longer run time may have allowed the documentary more time to focus on specific aspects of the history and certain individuals (the film comes in at just over 80 minutes), Liquor Store Dreams is a terrific film. It understands that healing is a long-term process and thus doesn’t offer clear-cut resolutions, but rather the potential of such.
By celebrating, but also interrogating the notions of liquor stores as communal spaces, So reminds us that underlying tensions of the past cannot be avoided but must be addressed. Space needs to be given to celebrate and show how at its best, the immigrant-run liquor store represents the intersection of beautifully varied communities.