Tribeca 2022: Liquor Store Dreams

Directed by: So Yun Um
Distributed by: TBA

Written by Patrick Hao


“Liquor Store Dreams” is a deeply personal film for its director, So Yun Um. In fact, it’s a documentary unpacking her own complicated feelings as part of the Asian diaspora in the United States. A self-monikered “liquor store baby,” her family is one of the many Korean immigrants that run a liquor store in predominantly black communities. So dominant was the Korean demographic in liquor store ownership, in the 1980s 75% of all liquor stores in South LA were Korean-owned. This created a complicated tension between the Korean and African American communities that was exacerbated by the killing of teenager Latasha Harlins by Korean convenience store owner, Soon Ja Du. This became a focal point of the 1992 LA Riots.

All of this history surrounds So Yun Um and her fellow liquor store baby and friend, Danny Park. The film is an attempt by Um to reckon with the dynamics of her father’s place as a liquor store owner within the black community and her own relationship with her father. The film is an extension of So’s short film, “Liquor Store Baby,” and allows So to extend the uncomfortable conversation with her father.

So’s perspective on this is very clear. With her own story, she presents a person who is struggling to find common ground with her father, both personally and sociologically. She wants to learn about her father and what the liquor store means to him, while also making him understand her and its effect on the community. Danny presents another side of the coin. Danny’s mother and late father run the convenience store Skid Row. Danny left his dream job at Nike to help his mother run the store when his father died, with a vision of using this store to become a community hub to bridge the divide between the Korean and African American communities.

All of these topics are important to explore, but the perspective seems too personal for any great perspective. The need to provide greater societal context with the personal offers little to either, leaving more unanswered questions than it is willing to explore. It is all undercooked.

There are dynamics between the director and her sister, who is presented as the natural successor of the store and is struggling with the idea of being good with the business but has no desire to continue the legacy. But, that is only in one scene. Then there is the frustrating lack of exploration of Danny’s decision to leave his “dream” corporate job at Nike to work at his parent’s store and what the store ultimately means to him. Sure, there are cursory, easy, surface-level explanations. It’s hard not to think if Um was not as good a friend to Danny if there could have been more revelatory observations. 

At 85 minutes, there is a frustrating amount of topics that were left unexplored. It almost feels like Um only had access to her subjects for a limited amount of time, so had to rush all her B-roll and interviews as opposed to observational revelations. That is not to say that “Liquor Store Dreams” does not have any value. The disappointment stems from how ripe the topic is for a story rarely observed.

“Liquor Store Dreams” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.

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