To be a liquor store owner in America is an unglamorous, exhausting, dangerous prospect. Most stores are open 365 days a year, 16 hours a day. A building full of alcohol is a prime target for robbery – sometimes the sort that involves a weapon.
As a second generation Korean-American immigrant whose parents own a liquor store, So Yun Um knows these pressures and risks all too well. Depressed by the unflattering stereotypes of Korean store owners, as seen in movies like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, she made Liquor Store Dreams to show the reality of what her family’s life has been like.
Liquor Store Dreams is So’s first feature documentary (it was adapted from her 2018 short, Liquor Store Babies), and it’s an ambitious debut. Straight from the off, between So’s piercingly honest narration and her father Hae’s status as a main character (her mum is a little more camera shy), it’s apparent how personal a movie it is. Although So describes arguing with Hae a lot, the two are very close – it’s clear that whilst the frequent parental nagging (to get married, and the oft-stated wish she’d find a more stable career than film-making) drives her understandably loopy, it’s coming from a place of love and concern. And in turn, it’s seeing what a toll that running the store has taken on her parents that – more than anything else – inspired her film.
So also introduces us to her friend Danny Park, who gave up his dream job with Nike to return home and help his mother May run the family liquor store after his dad died. Danny is a fascinating enough character to fill a movie all by himself – he’s open about his struggles with suicidal ideation, but still staggeringly motivated and generous of spirit; in the years since his return home, he’s turned the store into a community hub for the poor L.A neighbourhood where it’s located, stocking low-cost healthy food, and organising events for the local populace. He’s transformed the family liquor store from a burden, to a thriving force for good. So is open about seeing the prospect of taking on her own family store as a burden, which makes the conversations she has with Danny all the more interesting.
And her documentary’s scope goes wider still. Liquor Store Dreams also dives into the long-standing resentment between the Black and Korean communities, stoked in 1991 when Korean-American store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15 year-old Black girl, after falsely accusing her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. She received no jail time, which was one of the major events that led to the 1992 riots that ravaged LA – Koreatown was the most devastated neighbourhood. So’s documentary unpacks this fraught history, but also explores the way inter-community activism has helped to heal the divide in recent years.
For even an experienced documentarian to tackle such profound personal and political issues and weave them into a satisfying narrative would be quite a feat; that So Yun Um manages so well on her first time out of the gate is even more remarkable. Whilst there are a couple of stylistic choices that don’t quite work, Liquor Store Dreams is otherwise so successful in its grand ambitions, you’ll leave both moved and impressed.