‘Liquor Store Dreams’ explores Los Angeles racial dynamics with heartfelt story about Asian-owned liquor stores

Alishba Javaid, Life & Arts Reporter

Liquor Store Dreams,”  the centerpiece film of the 14th annual Austin Asian American Film Festival, hit the AFS Cinema silver screen on June 25. The documentary, directed and produced by So Yun Um, features the lives of Um and other Korean American children of Los Angeles liquor store owners, exploring themes of Asian and Black tensions and generational divides. The film primarily focuses on her father, who immigrated to the U.S. with $100 and works 15-hour days at their family-owned liquor store. 

The second-generation Korean American daughter films and interviews her family about their lives at the liquor store they’ve owned for the last 20 years, inspiring a feeling of intimate and personal connection with the people featured. The film’s refreshing, more empathetic portrayal of the Korean store owners aims to break the angry Korean business owner stereotype that dominates the media. 

Um uses the vulnerable and honest moments that occur within her own family to make a big picture commentary on racial tensions between the Korean community and the Black community that really sticks with audiences and shows these issues in a closer-to-home capacity. A standout scene was the contentious yet raw conversation between the father and daughter showing the father, glued to the TV news channel, expressing anger about the damage to stores during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and relating them to the 1992 LA uprisings. While the daughter was trying to redirect him to what’s more important about the cause, the father remained angry, showing the generational divide. 

This film masterfully created a work of art that made serious, complex and nuanced topics, such as racial tensions between communities of color, more digestible through the balance of emotional, hard-hitting conversations and scenes with pockets of humor. This can be seen in the family banter throughout the film, such as the running joke that the daughter needs to get married soon, that helped maintain a lighthearted tone similar in style to the popular CBC show “Kim’s Convenience.” 

Although the film does a good job depicting the realities of operating a Korean-owned store in a predominantly Black and brown Los Angeles neighborhood, its storyline did not have a clear focus. Instead of providing a seamless chronological narrative that would guide audiences through these timelines in an easy-to-follow way, “Liquor Store Dreams” spent its runtime jumping around from issues like Asian American hate crimes to the COVID-19 pandemic in a seemingly random order with awkward pacing. Visually, the majority of the scenes were restricted to the different parts of their liquor store and handheld shaky footage, creating an overall subpar viewing experience.

“Liquor Store Dreams” explores how the ecosystem and dynamics in a few Los Angeles liquor stores reflect larger social systems. Through candid conversations and historical context. Um’s ability to investigate socioeconomic and racial dynamics through her own family’s story resulted in a powerful, heartfelt documentary about family and generational divides.

4 bottles out of 5