In strip malls across Los Angeles, one type of business proliferates: the liquor store. Stocked with snacks, supplies, and alcohol, these stop-and-go markets are an essential but oft-overlooked part of the city’s landscape. Historically, many are owned by Korean American immigrants, such as the parents of LA filmmaker So Yun Um.
Her new documentary “Liquor Store Dreams” explores her life growing up in and around her family’s Hawthorne business, as well as her complicated relationship with her immigrant parents, and how that ties in with struggles for racial equity in LA.
The film was in part a reaction to the stereotype of the “angry Korean liquor store owner,” which So Yun Um saw portrayed repeatedly in other media while she was growing up.
“There were multiple films that portrayed Korean liquor store owners as a very stereotypical, sidelined character,” she says. “I started seeing a pattern, and I could understand how our image was affected and seen, especially after the 1992 LA uprising.”
So Yun Um’s own parents were among the last Korean families to own one of these stores in a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood. And the 1992 uprising, sparked by the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department, became a focal point in her documentary.
As racial tensions in the city once again came to a head in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder by Minneapolis police, So Yun Um started having frank conversations with her parents about their own relationships to racism, politics, and violence.
“It was so scary because prior to that, I barely ever spoke to my parents about race relations: what it means to just be a Black American, and what they're going through, especially in America,” she says.
So Yun Um also weaves in the story of another so-called “liquor store baby,” her friend Danny Park, whose family owns a business on Skid Row. After moving away to work at Nike, Park ultimately returned to his family store, rebranding it as a hub for fresh produce and community.
So Yun Um says she sees herself and Park as “two sides of the same coin.”
“Even though we grew up so similarly, our lives and our experiences were so different,” she says. “And I think I needed to include him in order to inform my own journey and my life. He's also just such an extraordinary person who really just advocates for the impossible to happen.”
So Yun Um’s parents eventually sold their store. Now, they are taking time to relax. “They've worked their entire lives. So they're now trying to figure out what are their hobbies, who they are, what are their likes and dislikes,” she says.
As for So Yun Um, she’s been traveling to show her film on the festival circuit, where it’s received buzz.
It will be available for streaming starting on May 26 on Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes. Its TV premiere will be on PBS on July 10.