Liquor Store Dreams

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Christina Sun Kim and So Yun Um

Director: So Yun Um

In this fascinating and personal documentary, So Yun Um explores why her family and Korean people in general own liquor stores in Los Angeles. Concentrating on the sometimes-fraught relationship between the Korean community and the African-American community, Liquor Store Dreams is a study of how to forge links between groups.

So Yun Um traces the distrust between the two groups back to 1991 when a Korean shop owner shot dead 15- year-old Latasha Harlins. Her killer was charged with manslaughter but received no jail time, widening the gulf between the two communities. In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, sparked by the beating of Rodney King by police officers, many Korean shops were attacked or set on fire. We see news footage of Korean men armed with guns trying to protect their property from the rioters. The bad blood is also seen in films in which Korean shop owners are often caricatured. Even Spike Lee, a director who So respects, resorts to stereotype in Do The Right Thing.

So considers herself a liquor store baby, and wonders if she is meant to carry on the family business when her father retires. He tells her that she doesn’t have to take up the reigns, but her friend Danny, another liquor store baby, gave up his job at Nike Headquarters to run the family liquor store after his own father died. Danny knew that his mother needed help, but admits that his father would be rolling in his grave if he knew that his son had given up such a high profile career. But Danny sees his new role as an opportunity to bring together the divided community.

He rebrands his shop to make it into more of a community hub where healthy food is cheap. He holds vigils to remember black people who have been killed by the police. He joins Black Lives Matter rallies. Social warrior Danny is an inspiration, and his ideas should be copied in Britain to wake up our own troubled high streets. We could also use his methods to examine the legacy of the corner shop in Britain, often owned and run by people from South Asia.

While Danny gets on with changing the world, So’s father begins negotiations to sell his shop. His life has been hard since he bought it. There are many shots of him at work sitting behind the counter with its bulletproof glass or preparing food for himself on a mini-stove in the backroom. He’s quiet, but the footage taken at home demonstrates that his store has made a life for him and his family. He’s worked hard and succeeded at the American Dream.

However, an undercurrent of sadness runs through the 80-minute documentary, and its focus on community is similar to the 2019 film Circus of Books which, also based in L.A., told the story of a porn shop and, crucially, how the HIV/AIDS epidemic affected the staff and the customers. The film, produced by Netflix, acted like an elegy for a generation. Liquor Store Dreams is similarly elegiac. Watching So’s father packing up shop is bittersweet as there is no sense of relief or of release, more the end of an era.

Liquor Store Dreams is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score:


Show More
Photo of The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

Related Articles

Back to top button