Written and directed by So Yun Um, co-written by Christina Sun Kim, two Korean American children of liquor store owners reconciling their dreams with those of their immigrant parents, against the backdrop of struggles for racial equity in Los Angeles.
As soon as Liquor Store Dreams opens it holds a surprisingly sweet and genuinely charming atmosphere. You can immediately feel the warmth of the relationship between writer, director So Yun Um and her father, Hae Sup Um. Then as it moves forward it cuts its teeth on a bigger depth and discussion, diving into the struggle, racial tensions and generational differences. The overall style moves back and forth between looking at the larger picture for the dwindling stores, their owners and their occasionally biased perspectives, and being a self-reflective experience for its filmmaker. It creates a nice balance between looking inwards, with a personal touch and comparing her experience with others.
One of the most interesting elements of Liquor Store Dreams is that exploration of racial tensions and prejudices between the Black and Korean communities. Violent, intense and traumatic experiences have caused lingering decades of resentment between the two. While you may not agree with the attitude, the documentary does make you able to see things from their perspective and explain where those attitudes were born. It’s undoubtedly a benefit that Hae Sup Um is so candid and blunt, that honesty helps to push the film’s tone of authenticity. It’s also a lovely touch to include a scene of him watching the documentary, and to then have him reflect on his moments of frustration, brining things full circle.
That honesty is a quality that also exudes from Danny Park and his mother May Park, their stories are heart-breaking, relatable, inspiring and generous. They perfectly capture the struggle and the strive for a better future, as well as recognising your limits. The only key weakness to the storytelling here is that it can try too hard to inject emotion when it doesn’t need to. The use of black and white at heavier moments of the documentary feels unnecessary, they don’t need to be separated or pushed, the story speaks for itself. So Yun Um’s narration easily gets across the weight to the moving or difficult moments, and it moves well to accommodate the changing tones throughout.
Liquor Store Dreams is an unexpectedly sweet, moving and candid documentary. There’s plenty of sincerity and a good dose of honesty. The directorial style from So Yun Um feels personal and fluid, it’s in the moment but still creates a great structure. It also has a surprising emotional depth, really diving into the different struggles and traumas that each family has faced. It swiftly and smoothly moves between being funny, charming, touching, sad and inspiring.