Korean-Canadian filmmaker Anthony Shim’s masterful Riceboy Sleeps takes what could’ve been a humble story about the immigrant experience and deftly expands it to emotionally and narratively epic levels. Although it’s set in both a past and present tense (one not altogether different from another wonderful Canadian film about diasporas that’s out in theatres this week in Clement Virgo’s Brother) with a gap in-between the parts of the story, Riceboy Sleeps feels pleasingly complete and all encompassing. It isn’t obvious, didactic, or spelling out every bit of the mother-son relationship at its core, but nothing is missing or out of place. Shim’s cultural and character study comes together so artistically and pleasingly that it feels like the viewer has known this family for decades.
Mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) has been forced to leave her small Korean hometown by her family, and is trying to make a go of things as a single parent living in Vancouver suburb during the early 90s. Her former husband struggled with mental health issues and committed suicide, something So-young doesn’t want to talk about, but takes on a lot of blame, guilt, and emotional burden just the same. Six year old Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) is about to enter first grade, but he’s ill prepared for the classwork and the culture shock he’s going to face. So-young finds herself in a similar situation while trying to adapt to her new job at a packaging facility.
In the first part of Shim’s two-tiered story, Riceboy Sleeps (which recently took home the Toronto Film Critics Association award for Best Canadian Feature of the year and won the coveted Platform Prize at TIFF this past fall) is a heartfelt and sometimes painful look at cultural assimilation, and how many immigrants are forced into positions where they sometimes have to abandon a lot of elements of their identities they hold dear. So-young and Dong-hyun are diverted into a workplace and school, respectively, that has little patience for the learning curve they face. Both are seen as difficult and less than accommodating, but while Dong-hyun has to largely sit there and take what his teachers and fellows students have to dish out, So-young is strong enough to speak up whenever she feels she’s being the target of racism and sexism. She is loyal to her son above all else, and the love exhibited between the two is boundless in the early stages of Riceboy Sleeps.
Shim sows the seeds early on for everything else coming into bloom during the film’s second section, set almost a decade later in 1999. Seung-yoon provides a solid emotional base early in the film so viewers can more easily follow along with her character’s devastating journey down the road. So-young is a picture of motherly strength, love, and resilience, like so many other immigrant parents before her. She’s the sort of mother many wish they had and so many often take for granted, and her narrative contrasts perfectly with the one of her young son, who isn’t in any position to assert himself when people tell him he needs to conform to this new and sometimes scary society.
When Riceboy Sleeps makes the jump to 1999, Dong-hyun (Ethan Hwang) – now going by a more anglicized name to his friends and teachers – has become a typical Canadian teen doing typical teenage things. He’s a bit aloof and rebellious, and has grown – as many teens do – to resent a lot of his mother’s doting mannerisms. He’s also not a huge fan of Simon (played by Shim), the successful, assimilated, and rather milquetoast guy So-young likes. For her part, So-young is stuck in a state of limbo, both capable of understanding this community she has spent the better part of a decade living in while growing somewhat cynical about the loss of a greater culture that once meant a lot to her. Their relationship as a mother and son grows even more complicated when So-young receives some terrible news, and she makes the difficult decision to return to Korea after leaving a decade prior on bad terms.
Questioning the definition of “home” and whether one could truly go back there – either literally or in the mind – Riceboy Sleeps has a perfectly constructed full circle narrative. Shim’s robust characterizations, lived in pacing, and strong visual sensibilities are less a movie and more of an experience based in aspects of life that are hard to translate into cinema. Riceboy Sleeps is so intimately engaged with this family that some scenes make the viewer feel like a neighbour popping around their house at an awkward time. Sometimes that awkwardness is inviting and universally relatable, and sometimes it’s very culturally specific and morally sticky. But regardless of how the viewer feels from moment to moment, Shim’s work is built upon a keen sense of understanding and just the right amount of explanation.
In the second portion of Riceboy Sleeps, Dong-hyun has to begrudgingly work on a family tree assignment for class, and it becomes a perfect impetus for everything to follow and for Shim to get his point across. What is more important in life: knowing one’s family, knowing one’s culture, or forging a happy, healthy identity for oneself? The answer lies somewhere in the middle and all three options intrinsically shape one another, but not always in ways the characters desire. Riceboy Sleeps is a resounding, sometimes unexpectedly twisty journey about a mother and son moving towards not only closure, but to greater senses of self. It’s a very down to earth story, but the breadth of the complex, sometimes contradictory emotions in play are so epic in scope that they can be plotted almost like the tree Dong-hyun has been assigned to make. These characters forge those connections, and the audience is there to witness all of it happen in remarkable detail.
Riceboy Sleeps opens at Cineplex Varsity in Toronto, Cineplex Fifth Avenue in Vancouver, and Cineplex Forum in Montreal on Friday, March 17, 2023. It opens at the Capitol Kelly Theatre in Windsor on March 21, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, VIFF Centre in Vancouver, Sudbury Indie Cinema in Sudbury, The Plaza Theatre in Calgary, and The Roxy in Saskatoon on March 24, the Metro in Edmonton on March 26, and ByTowne Theatre in Ottawa on March 31.
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