The Powerful 'Riceboy Sleeps' Tells a Universal Immigrant Story

Directed by Anthony Shim

Starring Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Anthony Shim, Hunter Dillon, Jerina Son, Kang In Sung, Choi Jongryul, Lee Yong-nyeo

Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films

BY Rachel HoPublished Mar 15, 2023

There's a quiet beauty and grief to Riceboy Sleeps. The second feature film by Vancouver's Anthony Shim explores well-worn ground: the immigrant story, a mother's devotion and burden, a child's search for self. What makes Shim's film so special is the restraint and authenticity in which he tackles these themes.

Riceboy Sleeps begins in rural South Korea — notably, a part of the country not often depicted in Western films. The landscape is lush and gorgeous, contrasting the morose narration introducing us to our protagonist. In her relatively short life, So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) has already experienced great tragedy to last a few lifetimes. Orphaned as a child, So-young finds herself facing life's challenges alone as an adult when her husband takes his life, leaving her a single mother.

She decides, for herself but mostly for her son, Dong-hyun (played by Dohyun Noel Hwang in childhood and Ethan Hwang as a teenager), to immigrate to Canada. Their beginnings in BC are tough: So-young brushes off misogyny and casual racism at work, while Dong-hyun is subjected to relentless bullying from his classmates. But as time goes on, So-young slowly widens her social circle, even beginning a romance with Simon (Shim), a Canadian-born Korean. Dong-hyun overcomes the language and cultural barriers that alienated him as a child, and becomes a typically anguished Canadian high school kid. 

Their relationship is fractured like most mothers and teenage sons, with So-young particularly disappointed in Dong-hyun's rebuffing of his Korean heritage, but when So-young receives a devastating medical diagnosis, the two of them and their relationship finds new life. As they work together to make good of a bad situation, Dong-hyun's attitude and perspective are changed as he begins to understand his mother and father.

Without a doubt, the heart and soul of Riceboy Sleeps is So-young. Her fortitude and solitary strength are powerful forces that drive the film. From the moment she fiercely defends her young son against the school principal's unjust derision to being carried on Dong-hyun's teenage back when she is too weak to climb up a hill in Korea, Shim's script considers the steel and softness that makes up a mother.

Bringing her to life is a truly remarkable performance from Choi. A trained ballet dancer, there's an effortless grace with which she moves that makes each tender laugh and agonizing tear achingly felt. The same restraint that Shim paints the entire film with, Choi exhibits when conveying the inherent pain of So-young: a woman who was never given a set of circumstances that allowed her to live freely, even in moments of happiness.

Riceboy Sleeps has an impressive amount of diversity in its production. There are intimate moments at home between So-young and Dong-hyun that sit alongside the expansive landscapes of Korea's oceans and fields. What connects the various elements is an assured director's hand and eye. Shim has spoken of the semi-autobiographical nature of the film, and that personal attachment is clear in every frame. His distinct familiarity with the story results in a film that is a marvel to experience and feel.

So-young and Dong-hyun's story will be familiar to many in Canada and around the world. Depicting the frustration of not being understood in a new language and the shameful embarrassment of participating in customs different from others, Riceboy Sleeps illustrates the intricate blemishes of the immigrant story. But it's also a film with far-reaching universality that will connect with audiences of all stripes. Increasingly, the desire to be heard and seen is relatable across many walks of life, and Shim deftly brings that notion to the fore in an understated film that carries its weight in rice and gold.
(Game Theory Films)

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