Riceboy Sleeps ★★★★★ TIFF 2022

Riceboy Sleeps ★★★★★ TIFF 2022

A strong drama that strikes a number of emotional chords, Riceboy Sleeps is a delicately handled personal film from director Anthony Shim; finding the right tone throughout, this intimate film will break your heart.

So-young is a Korean single mother raising her adolescent son Dong-hyun in the suburbs of Canada during the 90s. Determined to provide a better life for him than the one she left behind in her native country, she does her best to overcome the constant racial and cultural challenges that confront them. However, as Dong-hyun gets older, he becomes increasingly curious about his Korean heritage and about his deceased father – a topic that So-young refuses to address until she absolutely has to, for the sake of her son.

When a person emigrates to another country, it can be quite the daunting prospect, daunting more so if they have a child, all that child knows is their homeland, the language, food, and culture, so when plucked from one location to a completely foreign one they become overwhelmed even resentful and embarrassed by their own past, their own country. Sometimes a moment will trigger a realisation that you can have both in life, be proud of your heritage and strike your own path in a new environment. This is where director Anthony Shim wonderfully leads us in his deeply personal film Riceboy Sleeps.

Shim opts for a three-act structure that works very well here, allowing us to see the evolution of his characters and their mindsets as we reach each stage in their lives. Yet, there are attempts to break away from normality, with Shim and cinematographer Christopher Lew making the smaller moments stand out; the camera takes, at times, an observational route. Watching mother and son from outside of the bedroom before moving in to hear their conversations getting close, but not enough for a close-up until we truly need it. This continual distancing and slow meandering around scenes allow feeling as if we are creeping in on the characters and what they are doing.

Riceboy Sleeps is presented in different aspect ratios depending on where we are at the time, with the scenes in South Korea having a standard ratio with the Canadian ones creeping into the 16:9 format. This shows us the characters’ mentality; in Korea, they feel they can become themselves, not having to put up a wall and be someone they are not, while in the Canadian scenes, the restriction is there, confined to being who those around them want to be. It is an amazingly simple and effective approach that Shim utilises marvellously well.

With a heavy focus on the struggles of an immigrant, we see how it is almost easy for some to return home if their new hopeful situation isn’t working out as originally planned. For So-young and Dong-hyun, like many others, do not have that luxury at the start of their journey. They have to stick it out, put their heads down and work. In Dong-hyun’s case adapted and almost rid himself of his origins to make himself Canadian and not a Korean immigrant to fit in. We see and feel their struggle, so we become conflicted when they begin to find their feet in Canada. We want them to assimilate into their new country, but we do not want them to lose themselves in doing so.

We are also shown the multiple forms of racism present at the time, Dong-hyun’s teacher isn’t sure how to pronounce his name, so they immediately ask So-young to consider a Western one to ensure that he has a simpler time in school. While well-intentioned, its disrespect to their nationality is glaring. These moments become more prominent as Riceboy Sleeps on in that first act as the duo struggle with their treatment. So-young is of the mind to keep her head down and plough on, but that isn’t possible for a child; they are still learning, and if people are making fun of things that are natural to them, then over time, he will begin to reject the very things he knew and loved.

With all of the pain that So-young goes through throughout the film, her unfurling in the closing moments haunts you; she is unleashing over a decade of agony, frustrations and even fears for the future. A truly raw moment from the fantastic Choi Seung-yoon, who gives everything to the role. She is well supported by the young and older Dong-hyuns in Dohyun Noel Hwang and Ethan Noel Hwang, respectively. Both have their moments to shine here with the previously mentioned scene in the bedroom with Dohyun Noel Hwang and Seung-yoon wrecking you. It is a conversation that no parent will ever want to have with their child, to see them so confused and lost.

Riceboy Sleeps takes a coming-of-age and fish-out-of-water tale and makes it very much into its own thing, commanding us to pay attention; with subtle and thoughtful direction and outstanding performances, the film excels and catches you in the chest.


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