Riceboy Sleeps Review – Anthony Shim’s Immigrant Drama Succeeds When Foregrounds the Love Between Mother and Son

Riceboy Sleeps screens at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival on July 13 and 14.

Canadian director Anthony Shim’s immigrant drama Riceboy Sleeps is a film that juxtaposes emotional distance and intimacy within the very fabric of the film. There are times when Riceboy Sleeps feels like it is getting inside its characters and times where it feels like we don’t quite understand them at all. Perhaps that is part of what Shim is trying to achieve with his film – there is a certain loss of identity in being an immigrant, the home but not home aspect that leaves people unsure of where they belong and who they are. One thing that Shim is sure about is the love of a single mother for her son, even when her son starts to reject her as he enters his teen years.

The film begins with impressionistic visuals that tell us the story of So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), a girl orphaned in Korea who fell in love with an ex-soldier whose schizophrenia led him to commit suicide. The pair had a child but as they never formally married that child was not recognised by the Korean government as a citizen and So-young takes her son to Canada to build a new life.

Life in Canada is not simple for So-Young and her son Dong-Huyn (played as a child by Dohyun Noel Hwang and as a teen by Ethan Hwang). It is the 1990s and although Canada is a relatively welcoming country for immigrants, racism is still rife. The usual beats of the immigrant story are hit (sadly without much originality), Dong-Huyn is bullied at school for bringing gimbap and his teacher cannot properly pronounce his name and suggests the anglicised David. So-Young works in a miserable minimum wage packing job where she is mostly shunned by her co-workers, bullied by her boss, and sexually harassed. So-Young is filled with a certain rage that makes her a firecracker – she stands up for herself and stands up for “David” when he gets into a fight in the playground. “It’s racism,” she proclaims to the teacher suspending David. That there are no repercussions for those who instigated the fight is indeed racism, but at the same time Shim’s representation of the event is sadly, and perhaps purposefully, generic.

What isn’t generic is the love So-Young has for Dong-Huyn. Their suburban Canadian house is a small refuge. The shared meals, the stories at night, the soft embraces are a buffer to the outside world. Yet, even within this buffer there is a sense of So-Young being unable to be authentic. She won’t talk about Dong-Huyn’s father. There is no external family only the two of them. As Dong-Huyn grows this will become a deep-seated issue. The small rejections of Korean culture that begin with asking for a sandwich instead of Korean food become the road of incomplete assimilation as Dong-Huyn embraces becoming David in his teens. Ten years pass and David has bleached his hair and puts in blue contact lenses. He is an almost typical teen but underneath lies a lingering depression and dispossession.

So-Young begins to have her own integration into the community which starts when she meets Mi-Sun (Jerina Son) and the depth of relief of having found someone who speaks the same language is palpable. Over time more Koreans are on staff at her job where the women laugh about things like the anglicised names teachers want to give their children. Shim himself plays Simon, a Korean man who was adopted in Canada by a white family, a man who is attracted to So-Young but is seen as a little different by the Koreans who were not Canadian bred.

Tragedy lurks in the background, but it isn’t the explosion of violence that David experiences at the hands of a racist bully – that itself is sadly expected. Nor is it David’s shifting identity. It is a diagnosis which means that all So-Young has built for her son will soon be lost.

So-Young feels the need to mend Dong-Huyn and to give him a sense of who he is, so they go to Korea. Deliberately shooting rural Korea as a near enchanted place is deliberate on Shim’s behalf and the exquisite cinematography of Christopher Lew who shot of film give it a dreamier atmosphere than perhaps the reality of the place merits. Dong-Huyn’s introduction to Korea is supposed to be his gaining an understanding of what So-Young was leaving and why. He is introduced to his very welcoming grandfather and less than welcoming grandmother who blames So-Young for the death of Han Won-shik (Kang In Sun who also plays his brother In-shik). Dong-Huyn learns to understand Korean rituals around food and drink and quite quickly begins to find he has a greater idea of what it means to be inside something, rather than on the periphery of it.

There is a fairy tale aspect to Shim’s film, or perhaps even a folkloric one which is noted by a specific tale that So-Young tells Dong-Huyn about a man who carries his mother to her death on his back. The mother knows that her son is going to allow her to die yet still picks pine needles so he can find his way home from the mountain after he has left her. Dong-Huyn will carry So-Young on his back and that interchange between generations caring for each other is one of the most beautiful aspects of the film.

Riceboy Sleeps is at times quietly profound, especially when it honours the bond between mother and child, yet at others it seems unable to create its own identity that defines it from films of a similar ilk. There are some symbolic instances that resonate and land with authenticity and it is impeccably acted by Choi Seung-yoon in her first feature role. So-Young’s interactions with the child version of Dong-Huyn are particularly poignant. As they drift apart from each other when he attempts to assimilate into Canadian culture as a teen the Ethan Hwang’s David is more difficult for his mother to relate to, and yet there is nothing she wouldn’t do for him, even beg for Simon to adopt him.

The sections in Korea that act as a magical salve for David who reclaims being Dong-Huyn appear to be somewhat simplistic, but the chance for Dong-Huyn to understand So-Young and all she tried to protect him from are heartfelt. There is no simple answer to what forges identity across cultures and Shim allows for some complexity but also doesn’t quite manage to give the concept as much depth as it needs. The experience is different for everyone, and Shim is basing his work on his father, so it is his version of what being between two worlds means. Riceboy Sleeps succeeds most is in its steadfast belief of the love of a parent for a child, and that story is tender and sympathetic. So-Young may be enigmatic in places, so too Dong-Huyn, but what is sincere is that children do need honesty from their parents to understand the context of the world they inhabit.

Director: Anthony Shim

Cast: Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Dohyun Noel Hwang

Writer: Anthony Shim

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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