The Myths of Anthony Shim's 'Riceboy Sleeps' Are Grounded in Real-Life Experience

The Vancouver filmmaker discusses his "modern-day Korean folktale that takes place in Canada"

Photo: Youngbae Son

BY Alisha MughalPublished Mar 17, 2023

In the beginning of Riceboy Sleeps, a lavender-orange sun blankets South Korea like a burning god over water that looks unmoving, uncaring. A man's voice gently welcomes us: "On a cold winter night in 1960, So-young was discovered on the steps of a temple wrapped in a blanket. Left all alone in the cold, no one knew where she came from." Thus begins the life of So-young (Choi Seung-yoon), the protagonist of Vancouver-based Anthony Shim's semi-autobiographical second feature film.

The man's voice swiftly narrates the first 20 years of So-young's life, and we learn that her circumstances have necessitated she become brave and independent. Working at a university bar, she meets the son of rice farmers and falls in love, but when he dies by suicide after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, So-young and her newborn son leave Korea and head to Canada. Only after the man's voice has given us So-young's brief history and sets the stage does the title card appear.

Like all foundational creation myths, Riceboy Sleeps has two beginnings, because it is itself an exercise in myth-making.

"In Korea, we have all these — as most cultures do — old folktales and fables," Shim tells Exclaim! over Zoom. "These children's books that I grew up reading, they're told in that sort of style," he says, referring to the curt and simplistic style of the opening narration that harkens back to oral storytelling. "A lot of them are really harsh. A lot of them have to do with extreme struggles and a lot of them have to do with sacrifice. I think that's what ultimately makes up the culture of Korea. So much about it is: one sacrifices him- or herself for the betterment of the community and the nation at large. [You sacrifice] your life for your child or for your parents."

Shim admits, "Some people have criticized the dramatic-ness or the extremeness of that opening narration. And it is harsh. [So-young's] past is really difficult, but it's not exaggerated — it's not unbelievable. Childhoods and upbringings like that were so common with a lot of people of that generation. And with the pictures and the music [that open the movie], I [wanted to] set the tone for the rest of the film so that it feels almost like a folktale, like a modern-day Korean folktale that takes place in Canada."

Shim's goal becomes vibrantly realized about halfway through the film, in a scene whose language mirrors the stage-setting at the film's start. More than an hour into the film, So-young is sitting across from her boyfriend Simon (played by Shim). It's Friday night and her son Dong-hyun (Ethan Hwang) earlier learned that So-young is ill, and because he's a teenager and doesn't know how to process the tragic news, he's off getting drunk at a friend's party. 

So-young, herself having a vodka, shares with Simon something she has been thinking about: "There is a story from a long time ago. When a person becomes too old, then the son would carry the person to the top of a mountain and leave them there to die."

When Simon asks, in disbelief, whether people actually did that, she responds, "It could be like a folktale. This is a very old story, from when the country was poor and there was not enough food for everyone."

So-young goes on to tell the story of a particular son who lies to his mother, telling her that he is taking her up a mountain to look at flowers. Excited, the mother climbs onto her son's back. Halfway through the journey, the mother realizes that her son is taking her up the mountain so he might leave her there to die. Instead of protesting, she begins picking pine needles and dropping them behind her son, leaving him a trail of breadcrumbs ensuring his safe return. At the end of the day, after leaving his mother at the top of the mountain, the son embarks upon his solitary journey home, but finds it hard to make out his way in the dark, until he notices the pine needles.

"And he realized what his mother was doing for him that whole time," So-young says, wiping tears from her eyes. "Even on the way to her death she never stopped worrying for her son."

Choi's performance is aching throughout the film, but particularly in this scene. She seems to almost realize the burden she herself is carrying as a trailblazer, a first-generation immigrant and as the carrier of a myth that serves as a model for those of us who never had a creation story for our specific condition. Evident in this scene of storytelling with Simon, as she tries to find the correct English term for pine needle, is So-young's drive: she seems to know she needs to work so intensely hard for her son, and by extension for all us immigrant kids, so that we might have it easier.

In a scene preceding the one described above, So-young is at her doctor's office. Shim's writing in this scene is intentionally a brutal onslaught: the weight of the doctor's words strikes viewers like so many daggers to the heart, but something is lost in translation for So-young. She asks her doctor to speak slowly, so she might write his words down verbatim. The doctor repeats her terminal diagnosis again and again.

It's an interminably insistent scene with no cuts; cinematographer Christopher Lew's lens is unwavering as it sways between the doctor's and So-young's face, like vision succumbing to seasickness.

"When people do walk out, it's usually during that scene," Shim notes. "When I see people leave during that scene, I'm like, 'That person's not coming back.' It's hard. It's heavy and there's no cuts. You just have to sit with her that whole time processing."

The point of view the camera holds, where it is situated in a particular scene, how it intimately and affectingly maintains its gaze as it hovers between characters' faces in particular moments — all this is determined by the fact that the film's gaze is that of the deceased father, the missing person in So-young's family.

"What motivated and dictated all of our camera moves and how we shot the film, it had to do with the decision to have the story be told from the perspective of the deceased father," Shim explains.

"The voice that narrates [at the beginning of] the film is actually the actor's [Kang In Sung], who also plays the deceased father and the uncle," Shim says. "And so the idea was that he narrates the story to the audience saying, 'This is what happened to this young woman and this is what happened to [me], and this is how [we] ended up here.'"

Through Shim and Lew, viewers feel how the emotional relationship between the camera and the characters is carried by a ghost looking upon his family and watching over them, an element that compounds the folkloric bent of Riceboy Sleeps. Elevating this further is Korean-Canadian artist Andrew Yong Hoon Lee's haunting score. Lee composes an eerie, whirling and enveloping sonic canvas that is as sympathetic as the warm embrace of Dong-hyun's father's familiar ghost.

Shim reached out to Lee because he fell in love with his music, but in the beginning of their working relationship, the two talked about everything except the score. "We would get on these Zoom calls and just chat for hours," Shim says. "We talked about our own experiences growing up as an immigrant, our relationship to our own identity, to our family, ideas of being a parent, Korean art, Korean literature, music."

In having these conversations about all the things the two of them have in common, there easily and intuitively emerged an idea between the two creators of what the score of Riceboy Sleeps ought to be.

"We knew what it was that we wanted to tap into," he says. "We knew what we wanted to try and achieve as a whole with the film, not necessarily what we wanted to achieve just with the music. And so when I was editing, because there were all these scenes that were fairly long, I would end up putting some together and sending these long clips ... to Andrew. He was creating the music as I was editing the film. He would then send me three tracks, four tracks, five tracks, whatever. I would just take it and plop it in, and that was that."

Shim continues, "The music is a little eerie; it is a little ghostly at times. There is a word 'han' in Korean, and it's a word that people say is impossible to translate or describe in English because there's no equivalent. ... It's decades of pain and sorrow and anger that we carry as Korean people from one generation to the next. It's what fuels us as people and as a nation, and I wanted the music to have that sense."

The concept of han returns in a pivotal scene: "When she screams at the end of the film, we would describe that as releasing your han," Shim says.

So-young is one of the most dynamic and complex women to be depicted on film in recent years: in turns she is strong, soft, kind, weary, angry and prickly. Choi's performance is breathtaking. Delicate as it is forceful, as she embodies a gem of a character who is in part based on Shim's own mother. But So-young is also grander than one singular person, so that many immigrant kids, myself included, can see our own mothers in her.

"As the writing progressed, I did have to remind myself that I am not making a biopic about my own mom," Shim recalls. "That I am still, at the end of the day, writing a fictional story. I tried to get away from [writing a biopic] and that's when the character started to morph into a combination of, not only my mom, but [also] stories I had heard, experiences that people I grew up with had. [She includes aspects of so many] Korean-immigrant women that we've known. ... The heart and the spirit of the character, I really tried to base it on my mom and the women I've known, so that it does feel real."

Riceboy Sleeps has been running the festival circuit and picking up awards for a few months now meaning that Shim has seen the movie several times, and he still manages to enjoy watching it with an audience.

"When I'm watching it, I start to realize certain things," he says. "While it is so specifically Korean-Canadian, I find that, ultimately, at its core, it's about this boy as he's growing up [and maturing], understanding that the parent, his mother, is actually her own person."

Thinking back to when my family immigrated to Canada, I feel my mother in So-young. Whether it's her thoughtfulness in remembering an off-handed comment about a particular candy I discovered in our new home country or keeping track of what I suddenly dislike, she and So-young are similar in so many ways. Prime among them is their quiet observance and their strength. When Shim talks about his mother, and when Dong-hyun looks at So-young near the film's end, I see a warmth that I have felt often. I think we all hope to return some of care to our mothers that they gifted to us — and, through Riceboy Sleeps, Shim shows us how.

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