If you want to change the world, ground zero is your parents,” So Yun Um told the audience after her new documentary Liquor Store Dreams screened at the London Film Festival on Monday night. The Korean-American wants to change with the world in her own way, and so she points her camera at herself and her family.
For her first feature, So decided to develop one of her earlier shorts titled Liquor Store Babies (which is on YouTube here). In telling her personal story, she strives to tell the stories of immigrants around the world, whether they are Koreans in Los Angeles, Hispanic bodega owners in New York, or Chinese families running laundromats.
But she wants to look past the stereotypes (like the angry Korean liquor store owner, as seen in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing which is mentioned several times), or at least examine why they persist.
So tight in 80 minutes, stuffing all sorts of techniques, styles and sequences, but the liveliness of the film doesn’t stifle its ambition. The filmmaker grew up in Los Angeles, with her father working 15-hour days in the family liquor store, a common upbringing among second-generation Korean immigrants to the United States (at one point 75% of all stores Liquor Stores in South Central Los Angeles were Korean-owned).
Her story centers on herself, her father, and her best friend Danny Park, a third-generation Korean immigrant who has recently embraced her liquor store heritage, jumping through time and storytelling, trying to show the So’s important touchstones for his life. – featuring a selection of music videos that inspired So as a teenager wanting to get into the film industry (Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow gets a special mention).
But this is not a sugar coated view. So don’t shy away from showing his family in an unflattering light – the most powerful moment is an argument with his father who, after having his store destroyed in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots, turns to racism as protests of George Floyd are spreading across the nation.
“How many Koreans have been shot by black people trying to rob them?” he asks as he watches media coverage from the summer of 2020. Responds so aggressively, saying their communities need to work together, that the anger felt by the black community is understandable under the circumstances.
The generational divide is pronounced. So’s father and Danny’s mother still struggle with English; both rely on their stores and their children to help them connect with the changing Los Angeles around them.
The riots returned several times. A citywide outburst of community anger over Rodney King’s verdict, combined with the murder of schoolgirl Latasha Harlins by a Korean liquor store owner, led to around 2,000 establishments being looted or destroyed similar, including that of So’s father.
The scars of the riot, also known as the LA uprising, run deep, but Danny, whose mother runs a store in Skid Row, is trying to bring communities together.
Danny’s story is particularly touching – having literally traveled about 1,200 miles to apply for his dream job at Nike’s Portland headquarters – but quit to help his mother run the store after his father died. He admits his father would be turning in his grave if he knew his son had given up on such a prestigious career (Korean-Americans are particularly fond of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan).
Danny has his own mental health issues (his grandfather, who also ran a liquor store, committed suicide when he went bankrupt), but his optimism is contagious. In one of the most emotional moments in the documentary, his mother admits to hiding the reality of his father’s death out of shame.
So’s father has dedicated 20 years of his life to his store, but he’s adamant the last thing he wants is for So to take over the family business (all his parents want is ‘she is getting married…). But he’s full of pride when, in a meta-moment, So shows him the nearly finished documentary, including his racist outburst. He does not hesitate to say that it is his truth. With Liquor Store Dreams, So showed the world hers.
Liquor Store Dreams was screened at the BFI London Film Festival. It hasn’t gotten a general UK release date yet.