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Tribeca First Look: ‘Liquor Store Dreams’ Tells Personal Story Of Korean-American Experience In One Pocket Of L.A.

'Liquor Store Dreams' director So Yun Um with her father, Hae Sup Um

EXCLUSIVE: In the first clip from Tribeca Film Festival documentary Liquor Store Dreams, filmmaker So Yun Um turns the camera over to her father, a Korean-born liquor store owner in the L.A. area, and asks him to shoot video of them inside his business.

Hae Sup Um holds the camera tentatively, skeptical of his daughter’s documentary endeavor.

“If you make a film about mundane subjects,” he tells So, “people will say, ‘That was boring.’ It will flop.”

Father and daughter often find themselves at cross purposes in Liquor Store Dreams. She thrums to the idea of a career in film while he remains preoccupied with more down to earth matters, like whether she will get married and have children, and how to keep his store going. Yet it is Hae’s success and punishing workload – 15 hours a day, 365 days a year – that have allowed his daughter to imagine a different future for herself.

So makes her feature directorial debut with the documentary, which premieres Friday in Tribeca’s Viewpoints section. She calls herself a “liquor store baby,” a first-generation American born to Korean immigrant parents who opened corner stores in “Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles” (as the Tribeca program puts it). Liquor Store Dreams explores the experience of another liquor store baby, Danny Park, who landed a dream job with Nike in Oregon, but returned willingly to L.A. to help his mother run the family liquor store on Skid Row after his father died.

“I’m happily here,” Danny insists, while adding, “My dad would flip over in his grave if he knew I was doing this.”

As Tribeca programmer Robert C. Winn points out in his summary of the film, Liquor Store Dreams situates these personal journeys “in the larger context of Korean-Black relations in Los Angeles, including the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins in a Korean convenience store, the 1992 uprisings sparked by the police brutality against Rodney King and ensuing looting of Korean businesses, and growing political organizing.”

Harlins’ killer, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced to no prison time. The LAPD officers captured on video severely beating King were acquitted. Those dual events sent the message to L.A.’s African American residents that their lives didn’t matter. Liquor Store Dreams honors that truth. But it also suggests African Americans and Korean immigrants in economically challenged areas have more in common than simply sharing neighborhoods. So highlights the demeaning image of Korean-American shop owners purveyed by Hollywood, in films like Do The Right Thing (1989), Falling Down (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Menace II Society (1993).

“As I began to watch more films,” So says in voiceover in the documentary, “I realized that the angry Korean liquor store owner stereotype went beyond Do the Right Thing. And it was all over mainstream media where we were portrayed as farcical and ultimately disposable sideline characters.”

In a director’s statement, So writes, “It’s my responsibility to acknowledge and show future generations what our people have been through and where we are at this point. Through this, my hope is that we can move beyond our dark histories and stereotypes and most importantly, create a legacy where Korean people are united in solidarity with all Black Americans so we can dare to dream of a better future.”

Watch the clip by clicking on the video above.

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