Liquor Store Dreams, the CAAMFest 2023 Centerpiece Documentary directed by former CAAM Fellow So Yun Um, depicts two Korean American children of liquor store owners in Los Angeles. The film follows So and her friend and fellow “liquor store baby,” Danny, as they “navigate generational divides with their immigrant parents,” attempting to make sense of their family histories within a greater racial and political context. Narrated by So, the film tells a powerful story about immigrant dreams, reconciliation, and learning to make sense of our own identities.
Pia Yoon: Your father owned the liquor store for around 20 years, and you grew up behind the counter of that shop. At what point did you realize you wanted to turn it into a film?
So Yun Um: So I was part of this program fellowship, where they basically mentor a class of filmmakers – beginning filmmakers – and they were tasked to make a five minute short film. And so I think during that time, given the budget, given the time, I was thinking, “Oh, what can I make?” And it became Liquor Store Babies. It was a short film about me and my dad, and Danny, too. And we were able to jam pack a lot of things in five minutes. I think after Liquor Store Babies came out in the festival run, people kept saying, oh, you should make it into a feature. And I said, “Oh, that’s kind of such a big task – I don’t know if I can make it into a feature right now.” It wasn’t until a year later, where Danny reopens the store; he rebrands it from Best Market to Skid Row People’s Marketplace. And it was that moment, there was such a celebration. It was a moment of celebration where I decided, “oh, I kind of see an ending to the film that I want.” That’s very briefly how it started.
PY: My dad’s parents also immigrated from Korea, and they owned a small business in Brooklyn. According to my dad, he had a very analogous experience; I think he resonated with a lot of the themes that were brought up, such as witnessing racial tensions, especially between the Korean and Black communities. I think guilt is a very familiar feeling among second generation children. What message about guilt specifically, did you hope to convey through the film?
SYU: Are guilt and shame the same thing, I guess? Because it sometimes feels the same. I feel like it is almost like self-inflicted guilt and shame. But I think unless you address it, it’s not going to go away. And sometimes, depending on what it is, you kind of have to take accountability for it. Even if it’s not your fault, unfortunately, like the incident with Soon Ja Du who murdered the 14-year-old Black teen. It’s not personally me, like, I didn’t do that. But I think, unfortunately, when you’re from a particular background, you’re kind of blanketed; that if one person did one thing, it’s like a reflection of the entire culture. And although we’re in the same occupation, and so many of us view things differently, I think the only thing we have to acknowledge is that, obviously, it happens, and we don’t have to feel guilty for it. But I think we do need to acknowledge it and take accountability of why that even happened. Not just as Korean people, but as business owners, as people; especially, because we are in these situations where conflict occurs so much in store settings, and things are bound to happen. And I don’t think it’s a one-off incident. I think these incidents happen pretty often across America. And so I think that’s kind of how I’ve been viewing it. I think even in the film, I think about shame and guilt; it was something that I’ve internalized. So I think in that way, just confirming it, talking about it, so it doesn’t hinder you and hurt you in the end.
PY: Does this also include the guilt that you felt towards your parents? I know that in my dad’s experience there was a lot of guilt. His parents came to America and sacrificed so much and then he had to witness these really difficult interactions. I think that caused him to feel a lot of guilt towards his parents and the situation. Did that also play a large role for you?
SYU: Yeah, I feel like immigrant guilt is real just because we are naturally in a sense better off than our parents because we have access to language; we obviously grew up here. So there is quite a difference in terms of lifestyle and perspective. I think the guilt doesn’t really go away. But what do you do with the guilt? Because, sure, I can feel guilty all I want partying it up while my parents are working, but at the same time, they sacrificed all this so you could not do something that they’re doing. And I think your parents also acknowledge that they’re also suffering so you don’t have to, and you kind of have to do them justice by living your life the way that you want to. And that’s not so tied to work.
PY: How difficult was it to address these themes and have conversations that you haven’t had before while making the documentary?
SYU: It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Just because these conversations aren’t conversations I’m having with my parents daily. It’s like going from: “Oh, did you eat?” to full blown racial tension, like – “let’s just dissect everything: your history, your perspective” – things like that. So it was probably a lot even for my parents. But I think it was such an unprecedented time that if we didn’t address it, what are we doing here? Even as, as people. And I think that was a hard time for a lot of people, and it was the right time to have these types of discussions.
PY: If there was one thing you hope people would take away from your documentary, what would it be?
SYU: I guess just have more empathy, and get to know your parents. Because as children, I feel like we always feel like our parents should be the bigger person. But in actuality it might not happen the way that you want it to. So you kind of have to step up to the plate; you kind of have to be the bigger person, because despite everything that they went through, and you hope that they would do better or say, sorry, or do all this other stuff, they might not ever do that. And I think for your own sake, for your own life, and, you know, after they’re gone, having that reassurance that you did all you could in trying to reconcile your relationship, just because they’re not going to do it the way that you want.
Pia Yoon is an intern at CAAM and a student at Stanford University studying Psychology and Spanish.
Watch CAAMFest Centerpiece Documentary Liquor Store Dreams at noon on Saturday, May 13 at the Castro Theatre. Tickets are available at CAAMFest.com.