Dir.: Anthony Shim; Cast: Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Anthony Shim, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Hunter Dillon, Kang in-Sung, Han Wok Shik; Canada 2022, 117 min.
Riceboy Sleeps is an intimate and deeply affecting look at loss and the nature of identity from Canadian writer/director/editor Anthony Shim who also stars in his sophomore feature. Set in the 1990s in Canada and Korea, the melancholy film reflects Shim’s own experiences as a small boy emigrating from South Korea to Canada.
Young Korean widow So Young (an impressive Choi Seung-yoon) has left her home in Korea for a modest factory job after her husband committed suicide in a psychiatric ward. But her six-year-old son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) cannot settle down in his new home and the Canadian primary school where he is teased and bullied by the other children who steal his Korean packed lunch. And although their Canadian food is far less healthy-looking, Dong-Huyn wants it just to be like the others. So Young encourages her son to be strong and fight back when attacked, but the result is a week-long detention for Dong-Hyun even although his assailants go unpunished. Dong-Hyun opts to change his name to Michael Jordan, but has to settle for David.
Nine years later, and 16-year old Dong-Hyun (now played by Ethan Hwang) has become a stroppy teenager hanging out with his friend Harry (Dillon) and experimenting – not very successfully – with drugs. Meanwhile his mother has become romantically involved with fellow Korean Simon (Shim) who proposes to her on the same day she is diagnosed with cancer. Simon wants her to try complimentary medicine, but So Young decides to take her son back to Korea to meet her family.
Avoiding sentimentality at all times Shim opts for a poetic approach to dealing with death. The clash between the two cultures is made obvious in often ironic terms, but this is not just another story of a suffering immigrant: Far from being a victim So Young is a pragmatic and proactive woman. In a sad reflection of today’s culture, Dong-Hyun’s integration comes about via drugs and violence resulting from the use of narcotics.
Riceboy Sleeps offers some spectacular widescreen landscapes of Gangwon-do, South Korea shot by DoP Christopher Lew whose agile camerawork also captures the domestic conflict in Canada with moving close-ups of mother and son. This is an emotional rollercoaster, a passionate epic on the vagaries of life with So Young as a modern day heroine, refusing to accept defeat. AS
WINNER OF THE PLATFORM PRIZE | TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022