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Riceboy Sleeps

Following a South Korean single mother and her son as they start new lives in Canada, this heartfelt drama is both tender and thoughtful.
By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024
By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024

When Riceboy Sleeps charts the passage of time from 1990 to 1999 partway into the movie, the Canadian film does so with Dong-hyun at its centre. As a six-year-old (played by debutant Dohyun Noel Hwang) navigating his initial taste of school from behind his large round glasses, he's shy, sensitive, and constantly reminded that he's different by teachers and classmates. As a 15-year-old (Ethan Hwang, The Umbrella Academy) with bleached-blonde hair and faux blue eyes, he's adopted a coping mechanism: trying to blend in. Riceboy Sleeps isn't just about Dong-hyun, who takes the anglicised name David in his attempts to assimilate. It's as much about his mother So-young (fellow feature first-timer Choi Seung-yoon), who relocates him from South Korea to North America after his soldier father's suicide. Writer/director Anthony Shim's sophomore release after 2019's Daughter hones in on the act of seeing, too — gleaning what's around you, who, why, the past that lingers, the stories that echo — as Dong-hyun and So-young survey where they are, where they've been, and how their history keeps dictating their present and future.

In that aforementioned time jump, Shim — who helms, pens, edits and acts — and cinematographer Christopher Lew (Quickening) make eyes the focus. When Riceboy Sleeps dwells in the first year of the 90s, Dong-hyun's spectacles are frames within the frame, giving the boy his own windows to the world that he fidgets with, seems burdened by and, in an act of bullying by his peers, has dinged up and taken away. When the movie hits the end of the decade, Dong-hyun is putting in his contacts, therefore making the lens with which he perceives his existence invisible. Semi-inspired by his own childhood as a South Korean arrival to Vancouver Island in the 90s, including attending a school where he was the only Asian student, Riceboy Sleeps is this thoughtful at every level. The movement, and later lack thereof, of Lew's camerawork is just as loaded with meaning: in Canada, it's restless in long wide shots, careening around gracefully but noticeably and finding points to fixate on; back across the Pacific Ocean in the picture's bookending segments, it's still but just as observational.

Riceboy Sleeps' opening unfurls a tale, with narration in Korean explaining that a baby girl was found at a temple in 1960. She'd grow up to be strong, flee the orphanage as soon as she was old enough, then fall for the son of a rice farmer. When her love took his own life, she had a newborn, wasn't married and attracted social stigma for both, hence shifting across the sea. The mountains and water that take centre stage during the film's introduction are dreamy and hazy. In Canada, even though greenery instantly awaits, the view is sharper and crisper. Again, Shim layers his 16-millimetre-shot feature with symbolism and significance everywhere that he can, ensuring that how So-young and Dong-hyun feel sweeps through every moment whether or not they're in sight — and especially when they're doing what settlers beyond their homeland do often, holding back their true thoughts and emotions.

Inhabited with steeliness and deep-seated sorrow in equal parts by Choi, a dancer- and choreographer-turned-actor, So-young takes a job at a factory in her quest to give Dong-hyun the best life in their new surroundings that she can. She sends him to school with flavoursome Korean lunches. She makes his favourite kimchi at home. She's also anything but withdrawn when it comes to being treated fairly, reprimanding sexist colleagues at work and rallying against discriminatory decisions by Dong-hyun's principal. But with her son, she avoids answering when he asks about his dad. Alone, she scolds herself for her tears. She advises the younger Dong-hyun that there's only three times in a man's life that it's permissible to cry; being taunted by other kids in the playground, then singled out for punishment afterwards, isn't one of them.

Shim spies the effort that's always coursing through So-young: to hide her pain, persevere, make the most of her new life, bring her boy up right, fit in but not be a victim and perhaps cement a fresh family dynamic with Korean Canadian Simon (Shim himself). He also spots the uncertainty streaming just as potently within Dong-hyun, who wants desperately to make sense of his place in the world, but isn't sure who he sees when he reflects upon himself. There's stubbornness to the boy as a child, as he ignores his mum when he's not getting what he wants and has tantrums in the car. Rebelliousness swirls in his teens, when getting stoned and tussling with fellow students are his forms of acting out. Riceboy Sleeps is patient in its pacing and visuals, even the latter frequently roams, and yet it's also a jittery film in its midsection to again mirror So-young and Dong-hyun's internal states.

The Farewell, Monsoon, Minari, Everything Everywhere All At Once and Past Lives have probed the immigrant experience eloquently, expressively and weightily, not to mention recently, putting Riceboy Sleeps in excellent company rather than making it overly familiar. That the first two titles listed above also explore homecomings, complete with the intricacies and whirlwind of complicated emotions when the place that you're returning to isn't the place you really know, has the same impact. As with The Farewell, Monsoon, Minari and Past Lives particularly, this touching film never feels anything less than personal. That's accurate in its third act as well, when tragic news hits, South Korea becomes the movie's setting again and lingering hurt is confronted. There's a vast difference between trading in cliches and accepting life's inescapable reality — and when a feature is this lived-in, there's no tropes, just universal sensations.

Riceboy Sleeps' dénouement is exceptionally affecting for its willingness to sit and contemplate. It's impossible not to garner that the frame stops roving and searching, as the characters do — and that valuing connection, time with the ones you love and small details, including in tough circumstances, comes tenderly to the fore. Of course, minutiae is important in every second of Shim's movie. Indeed, thematically, this is also a film about valuing what you have, and who, but mightn't properly understand or appreciate. It's a picture of acceptance and gratitude, too, and of realising when you're finally seeing the whole picture constructed from its various parts.

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