Music & Film

Liquor Store Babies Having Liquor Store Dreams

Liquor Store Dreams promo image

On the evening of Friday, June 10th, I traveled into my favorite New York City neighborhood, the East Village, to attend my first Tribeca Film Festival experience.

OK. Experience may be a tad dramatic, but for me, a lowly wannabe surrounded by absurdly talented artists in every city I've called home, this world-renown film festival is easily associated with a level of artistic expression somewhat undefinable.

So imagine getting to ... yes, experience ... that undefinable artistic expression while also supporting an immensely talented filmmaker who I happened to meet in the wake of the George Floyd protests during an online forum for creative freelancers in the middle of lockdown. Yes, in there lies my joy.

So Yun Um, the director of Liquor Store Dreams, introduced the world to her feature-length documentary at Friday's screening, and reminded me why I made an effort to stay in touch and follow her work over the last 2 years. She also reminded me of a whole lot more.

To describe Liquor Store Dreams as a look inside the world of first-generation Korean Americans in Los Angeles coping with the struggle of growing up in a multi-racial community where the local liquor store serves as source of income, hope, and fear may be somewhat accurate, but also a bit reductive. It's perhaps more accurate to say that Um's documentary provides us with insight into the complexity of chasing the American Dream, along with glimpses into some of the deeply personal battles fought within families and within ourselves as we chase those dreams.

Village East cinema marquee for Tribeca FilmFest 2022

Sure, we've all heard tales of the "Immigrant Story" in America. It used to be one of Hollywood's favorite feel-good genres. The young, plucky go-getters from a foreign land arrives in the U.S. with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a fighting spirit. And slowly, they overcome every obstacle with determination, optimism, and heart.

Eventually, they start a business and a family. And as the business expands and flourishes, they prepare to hand off their enterprise to their children, who will keep the legacy alive for another generation. Roll credits. Everyone applauds. Everyone feels inspired. The American Dream is validated.

It's important to note that all too often these stories are cheered on by mainstream audiences because the film's protagonist is usually from Europe and embodies that Protestant Work EthicTM we love to champion so much here in the land of the free.

But for those who move to the U.S. from nations outside of the European continent, the "Immigrant Story" isn't always as triumphant. The struggles are numerous; the paths, limited; and the adversity, more diverse. And their tales rarely receive the same mainstream applause.

Liquor Store Dreams shares a version of the "Immigrant Story" which details the journey of Um's parents as well as her friend, Danny Park, and his parents. Their families endure many of the same issues as most American families: how to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, how to feel safe in an environment of increasing tension, how to get your artistic children to find spouses who will give you grandchildren and stable jobs that will give them good benefits.

But beneath that layer lies a tale of heartache. And it is here where Liquor Store Dreams stands a part.

It's easy to empathize with Um's father, Hae Sup, when you learn of his long days and nights at the store, chasing after shoplifters, and trying to figure out when to chuck it all in and walk away. It's a lot less easy to empathize with him when his primary reaction to the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd (riots that began as peaceful protests until the police engaged with violence, by the way) is to be angry with the protestors, not the circumstances that caused the riots.

George Floyd lit the powder keg political cartoon by Greg Kearney

It's easy to understand why Danny's mother, May, wants the best for her son and cheers him on as he tries to transform their family liquor store into a safe haven and community nexus where all feel welcome even on her worst day. It's not so easy to understand where she gets the strength to do this every day after you learn that her father, who started his own business only to lose it to bankruptcy, took his life when he realized the business couldn't be saved.

Um places this heartache front and center via impromptu reactions to TV news coverage and expertly edited testimonials. Along with it, we see heartache in a son who left a burgeoning career behind at sportswear juggernaut, Nike, so he could help save his family business. We also feel Um struggling with heartache as she describes an incident where her father faced down a group of shoplifters and was spat on in retaliation. Torn between her need to be the voice of reason while feeling powerless in a situation with no good options is one many of us -- especially BIPOC -- know all too well.

Additionally, even though we don't know their full backstories, we sympathize with their employees fighting homelessness and poverty. We see ourselves in their siblings who are adamant about not going into the family business. We share their disappointment in not being able to connect closely with those who see us every day while admiring their effort to build better relationships against a backdrop of uncertainty.

In all of this, Liquor Store Dreams feels at the same time familiar and peculiar. Hence why it's not surprising that all 3 screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival sold out, and a 4th screening was added for Saturday, June 18th.

4th Screening of Liquor Store Dreams at Tribeca2022

So why is does the documentary seem to be resonating with audiences? Perhaps it's because Um's film somehow manages to be candid and brimming with heartache, but also tender and uplifting.

If the Friday night Q&A after the screening was any indication, many liquor store babies abound here in the U.S. and they easily recognize themselves in her film. Some even stood up and shared their stories, and it is was clear that the ties that bind stretched across cultures and ethnicities. Whether Latinx, Eastern European, or Asian, the liquor store babies were there to support and to shine.

Adding to the uplifting message, Um's film is one of those tales that deserves to be heard now more than ever. No, not just in the wake of rampant anti-Asian hate and violence. No, not just in the name of more inclusivity and diversity. Liquor Store Dreams deserves to be heard because it's time we share the full scope of the American Dream in all its colors. And it deserves to be shared because within every tale, we learn more about who we are as a nation, as a community, and as human beings.

Regardless of whether it angers the blood of the "anti-woke" crowd, this story, along with so many others, needs a platform so we can see and listen to the humanity that connects us all.

That's not to say that engaging with those we disagree with won't be hard to hear. As an African-American woman who grew up in Indianapolis, once resided in Los Angeles, and now currently lives in Newark, NJ, I am all too familiar with the history of generational violence that is inflicted on my community across the country. I also know what it's like to work in environments where everyone who isn't Black believes that they're not a part of the problem. Whether they are immigrants, Leftists, non-black people of color, university students, artists by trade or hobby, or someone who simply "voted for Obama," anti-blackness is a common trait that ties many Americans to their pursuit of the American Dream.

And it was difficult for me to watch Hae Sup project his anger and fear onto a community reacting to the unending violence that has been allowed to go unabated for centuries because he has never healed from his own trauma suffered during the L.A. Riots of 1992. Perhaps he has never questioned his role in the exploitation of a permanent underclass that he helps maintain every day. Perhaps he has never explored the roots of how historically disenfranchised communities are pitted against one another by a common oppressor in order to maintain the status quo. Perhaps I am giving him the benefit of the doubt because I want to believe he will change his point-of-view.

It would be easy to be angry with Um's father, but I believe part of the film's goal is to again provide that window into our collective humanity. To see and hear the frustration, bitterness and despair, and still choose to connect -- even if that connection is with someone we disagree with. Because maybe, just maybe, that is the true dream within Liquor Store Dreams.

Skid Row Market in Downtown LA owned by Danny and May Park

Top Image: Courtesy of Liquor Store Dreams Facebook page | Second Image: Village East marquee at Tribeca 2022 festival by Candace Nicholson | Third Image: "The Spark" cartoon by George Kearney for People's World | Fourth Image: Promo image for added 4th screening of Liquor Store Dreams at Tribeca 2022 | Bottom Image: Skid Row Market in Downtown L.A. photo courtesy of Liquor Store Dreams Facebook page

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