L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest 2023 Interview: So Yun Um on Telling a Story Bigger Than Her Own in “Liquor Store Dreams”

So Yun Um had been writing a narrative screenplay when the realization struck that the story she needed to tell was unfolding in real life. Growing up in Southern California as the daughter of first-generation Korean immigrants, she was accustomed to spending time after school and in the evenings at the liquor store that her father Hae Sup ran — as someone in her captivating feature debut “Liquor Store Dreams” mentions, what small business someone from abroad goes into in order to make a better life for their children is often a matter of who picks you up from the airport – and as she got older, the less this felt like a form of neglect when the work was always at the center of his attention than remarkable demonstration of love when no matter how many hours she’d have to spend at the place, he’d devote at least double the hours to support the family. The filmmaker was hardly the only one she knew in her community who could pursue a different career than her parents because of such sacrifice, knowing that her friend Danny Park secured a dream job at Nike in part because his parents put their best foot forward for him by operating a store in the heart of downtown Los Angeles (though he would take the next steps himself, wowing execs at the shoe company by documenting a run all the way up to company headquarters in Oregon).

However, when Park’s father passed away and his sense of obligation led him back to running the store and Um’s own father started considering retirement, the director recognized that this was a time worth documenting, unaware of just how important a moment it would be when the camera would keep running throughout the pandemic where not only health concerns reared their ugly head, but the murder of George Floyd and the anti-Asian rhetoric that stemmed from the coronavirus’ origins in China revived racial tensions that the shopkeepers had endured before in 1992 following the verdict in the Rodney King trial. When Hae Sup experienced such prejudice throughout the years and Park now stands on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement with the largely Black community he serves in the heart of the city, “Liquor Store Dreams” is able to tell a story across generations as it follows those who have taken unpopular work and turned it into a foundation for not only a sustainable future for themselves but often a boon to their entire neighborhoods to thrive collectively.

If Um had any concern that the story might be too insular to tell, it’s had to be reassuring that “Liquor Store Dreams” has been a favorite across the world, following up its premiere at Tribeca last summer with dates at the London Film Festival, TIFF First Wave and Busan and now arrives back in the U.S. triumphantly to play Um’s hometown of Los Angeles at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival before its premiere later this month on VOD and a berth on POV on PBS in July. Recently, the director spoke about how a tumultuous time became fortuitous to film in, handling her family’s story with great sensitivity and seeing it resonate with audiences around the world.

Did you know when making the short “Liquor Store Babies” that you might be able to expand it to a feature?

After I made the short, people kept saying, “Oh, you should make it into a feature-length documentary,” and I [would say], “Ooh, I don’t know, I’ve never done that. That’s a huge task, going from a five-minute to a 90-minute movie,” but there’s a scene in our film where Danny reopens his store and rebrands it from Best Market to Skid Row People’s Market and I think it was in that moment when there was so much celebration within the community that it felt like, “Oh, I have an ending to the film that I’m seeking.” It wasn’t until about a year [after the short] and I went on this very long journey of Kickstarting [the feature] by myself and then trying to figure out how to make a movie. Every step of the way, I had to just learn how to make a movie just because from the concept to actual execution, the road is murky. You don’t really know what to do and how to do it right, but three years later, I made a film and premiered at Tribeca and it’s been a whirlwind of a year.

I remember during the Kickstarter campaign, it seemed like you might expand the number of stories beyond yourself and Danny to other liquor store babies. When did you realize that the two of you might be enough?

I feel the overall concept hasn’t changed, but initially we had four liquor store babies that we were going to look after that all have very, very different journeys, but at the end of it, some people couldn’t make it through and when we started filming more, we figured out the core of the story, which ended up just being me and Danny’s story. People always say, if you’re going to have characters, it should be somewhat extreme [contrast], so I always felt like Danny and I were on different sides of the same coin.

It was interesting to realize that while the short and the feature are both ultimately about the fathers, the feature allows for the mothers to have more of a presence. Was that an exciting element of this?

Our origin story as people always starts with our parents, so [the question] was how do we tell that origin story of our parents as well as ourselves because so much of the way we live our lives is influenced by our parents, so made a lot of sense, and it was the first time I really got to know my parents’ story in depth. Prior to that, it was more like, “Oh, you came here from Korea,” and that was pretty much it.

Were you comfortable putting so much of yourself and your family’s story in the movie?

That was something I thought a lot about and I was trying to figure out a way as a director to be present, but not physically present visually. At the end of the day, I couldn’t figure out how, even with the voiceover and ultimately we [realized] it just feels right and I have to [be on camera]. And growing up in this internet age, I used to make a lot of YouTube videos and things like that, so I was pretty comfortable in front of the camera. [As for my parents], even though it’s so awkward if you’re not used to being filmed, people usually shy away from the camera, but they still want to talk, so I think the camera allowed me to have these conversations with my parents and get to know them and for them to be a little bit more playful just because it is a slightly awkward environment, but we still were connecting on this level where we were getting to know each other.

You’re able to show the contrast between your parents so elegantly at the start of the film just showing how they go about cooking – your father makes a hearty hot pot stew while your mother prepares a more delicate meal. Could you see that kind of cinematic contrast immediately?

Not really, but I did want to set up situations where people’s personalities came [across] naturally and show everybody in their most true self in one scene, so whether it’s [at] the liquor store or when we’re eating, just because things always come up, I try to be pretty situational [about] where I place people and do interviews so we could see more of themselves in these areas. [And then when we were with Danny] when you’re filming somebody else I just try figure out where is the most comfortable place that they would like to be filmed. Obviously, even with his mom, I [thought] we can go to your house and have the dog present so you feel comfortable, and we’d just try to adapt as much as possible.

Does anything happen that changes your ideas of what this film is?

A lot of the things that we want to tell ultimately ended in the in the film, but the pandemic and George Floyd’s death and a lot of the protests in America like revealed so much about our lives and what we were complacent in or things that were buried within. When 2020 happened, a lot of the issues that we were hiding came up to the surface, so I felt “Okay, things are blowing up and if I don’t address these issues like why am I even making this movie?” Because a lot of these do trickle into our day-to-day lives, especially being a store owner. Of course the pandemic affected Danny and we talk about George Floyd’s death and a lot of the protests, so it just makes you question where you stand and who you are. It was a real scary moment because I thought I’d be finished by 2020, but it only made the story richer and deeper.

And there’s a thing my dad said that didn’t make it into the film, but he was like, “Every 30 years, there’s like an uprising.” And I [asked], “Why do you think that is?” And he [said, “I’m not sure.” And from the outsider’s perspective, when we see it, a lot of it ties to police brutality, but in 1965, [there’s] the Watts Rebellion, then in ’92, the L.A. uprising, and then in 2020, it felt like history was almost repeating itself, so even though I didn’t live through that time, so much of those images are seared into my head and seeing them in present day was very surreal. You always like to think, how could this be happening again? How have we not changed? Have we not moved forward as a community? And as a society, we tend to forget a lot, so that’s why I always feel history is so important.

There’s a really captivating moment where you describe your father’s brush with that kind of racially charged violence as a group of young women pelted him with potato chips once, mocking him outside the store. Was that difficult to present in a tactful way?

That was the hardest scene. It’s the one that probably gets me choked up every time and at first, I just filmed myself telling the story, but then it was so long and [I thought] “No one’s going to want to see like 20 minutes storytelling, so we were trying to figure out some way that felt artful but fit to our narrative and we always played around with this theme of being stuck in time, especially in the liquor store because you’re working 24 hours, 365 days, so it doesn’t seem like time exists.

What was it like working with other editors on a personal story such as this?

My editor Christine Sun Kim actually grew up in Seoul, but also grew up in Texas, so even though she’s also Korean, she had such a different perspective than me because she didn’t grow up in L.A. and I didn’t want to over-explain the film, but I also wanted to explain enough that if somebody from Texas, say, wanted to watch this film, that they would understand exactly what happened during the ’92 L.A. uprising or any nuanced things about Korean culture or about [our] parents, so it was really nice to get that perspective from her. She would be so brutally honest with me when things didn’t work out, especially because I am so close to the subject that I could be like, “Oh, I really like this.” But if it doesn’t actually work with the story, it should probably not [be in there].

You’re seen showing a cut of the film to your father, and from what I understand, Danny saw a few cuts throughout, just to get a feel for what the film would be – was it interesting in involving the subjects of this in that way?

It was so scary, because especially if at one point Danny said, “Oh, I don’t like this,” then we don’t even have a movie after three years. But luckily, I feel he trusted me enough that I waited almost to the last minute and I showed him a very, very different version. It was almost two-and-a-half hours of what this could be and he really understood exactly what we were going for. And when we ended up cutting it down, it was even stronger in a sense. And with my dad, both times it was very scary to show somebody your work, especially if they’re so closely tied to it and that scene [of the assault] was [there] the first time I showed it to him and I hoped that me filming him didn’t influence his opinion about the film, but who knows, right? Was he saying all these things because he’s also being filmed or does he genuinely think that about the film?

Does it seem like your father is more accepting of your career choices now that he’s seen the film and it has obviously had the success it’s had?

I think so. I always think, “Is he only excited about it now that it’s done really well, or would he have been proud regardless?” But I think that I’m really just proud that I was able to make it and share it with him because it’s something that I’m sure we’ll look back on.

When the film played in Busan, were you able to take the whole family?

We did! It was really great. My parents were already going to go to Korea, so when Busan International Film Festival invited us, it was like the stars aligned and it was one of the most unforgettable experiences. It’s so crazy because we premiered [at Tribeca] last June, and then to travel for a year and then be back in L.A., [where] this is the first time we’re ever showing it to a large audience, it’s a true homecoming, especially premiering at [Visual Communications], who has supported me through even my short film and beyond. I’m just really excited.

“Liquor Store Dreams” will screen at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 10th at 7:30 pm at the Gardena Cinema and CAAMFest in San Francisco on May 13th at noon at the Castro Theatre. Additionally, it will be available to buy and rent on digital May 26th on Google Play, Amazon and iTunes and will have its broadcast premiere on PBS POV on July 10th.

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