So Yun Um’s highly personal documentary probes a specific, cinematic branch of American identity to mixed results
The story of Korean-American-owned liquor stores in the United States cannot be told in just under 90 minutes, the runtime of liquor store heiress (or “baby”) So Yun Um’s documentary about her father’s modest establishment in South Central Los Angeles. That’s not to forget their depiction in cinema (most notably Do The Right Thing), which could source a whole other film. Wisely, So Yun doesn’t try either tack, instead letting her dad, plus inspiring longtime friend Danny Park, explain their own liquor store dreams.
A little more context would’ve been nice, nonetheless. For obvious reasons, So Yun focuses on her loved ones. But we’re not told how many Korean-owned liquor stores there are, when the first opened, nor how exactly Koreans succeeded Jewish-Americans to dominate the small but mighty sector of the US retail economy. All we know is how her dad got into the business: a liquor store owner picked him up from the airport.
That makes Liquor Store Dreams a tale of chain migration as much as anything else. So Yun is on home turf in more ways than one when she portrays the complex interplay between Koreans and Black people in places like Compton, and the hate crimes that sometimes flash in either direction. In the relative absence of white people, Koreans and African-Americans have their own, not always happy, existence on the economic periphery. Flashpoints include the LA Riots of 1992, which saw dozens of Korean-owned stores targeted in revenge for the killing of a Black teenage girl by a trigger-happy shop owner. During 2020’s George Floyd-inspired Black Lives Matter Protests, Danny clamours to rally Koreans behind the cause of a shared racial justice. He doesn’t always succeed.
So Yun’s own store, meanwhile, doesn’t have a particularly exciting story to tell. That’s partly why Danny is such a subject of focus: a doggedly ambitious and undeniably talented young man who walked to the Nike headquarters in order to get a job (and, because this is America, they gave him one), Danny inherits his late father’s store, and a liquor store dream that was never his.
By virtue of making her film, So Yun’s own perspective on succeeding the family business is made clear enough. And, like in a 90s Ang Lee film or The Farewell, generational clashes dominate as the hopes of the young meet their match in grown-ups’ pragmatism and disillusion. How can second-generation immigrants stay true to a hard-fought upbringing and pursue their own destiny? Liquor Store Dreams won’t answer that question (find me someone who can), but it asks the right questions.
Liquor Store Dreams was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch