(Director: Anthony Shim)
This is a story that is not new to me. It may not be the exact same story, circumstances, or culture but it is a story many of us children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves know all too well. Riceboy Sleeps (2022) tells the story of So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) and her son Dong-hyun (Dohuyn Noel Hwang as a child and Ethan Hwang as a teenager). After losing her husband, So-young relocates to Canada from South Korea with her son in tow. There they must build a new life in 1990’s Canada, battling racism, acceptance, and isolation.
Packing up and moving to another country is never a decision that is made lightly, So-young circumstances gave her no other choice making it that much harder to make a life elsewhere. Mother and son struggle in their different circumstances, Dong-hyun as a child is bullied by classmates and named “Rice Boy”, as a teenager he struggles with subtle racism and not knowing who or where he came from, while his mother endures loneliness, racism, and sexism at her factory job. All this is only made worse by the micro aggressions they must endure in their daily lives, A rift between mother and son begins to grow as they suffer through their parallel situations. They are unable to understand each other’s perspective which is something as a child of immigrants to Canada can completely relate too. It is this rift, along with some unwelcome news, and a fight at school that sparks an unplanned trip back to South Korea.
Rice Boy Sleeps is about tragedy, displacement, grief and the unending love of a mother for her child. Feeling alone in a strange land is something many Canadians have felt. While there are many films out there about the trauma and struggles that come with immigrating to this country, not many feel as raw or as honest as Rice Boy Sleeps. Director Anthony Shim’s use of 35mm gives the audience a nostalgic and intimate look at the life of an immigrant in Canada in the 90s’. He places the audience in the spaces that the characters inhabit. You really feel like you are in So-young’s house, at the dinner table, at the factory she works at and in Dong Hyun’s classroom. The camera is always right at the level of the main characters telling us their story and revealing not just their outer struggle but what they are grappling with inside. This is most evident when So-young is sitting on the floor with her friend recounting how she dreamed of taking a joyride in a convertible when she moved to Canada like she has seen in the movies. The audience is there on the floor with her listening to her share this heartbreaking story realizing with her that it may never come true.
Once they reach South Korea we are gifted with more expansive camera shots of the landscape. It is almost like So-young and Dong-hyun are able to breathe again. There is brightness to the scenes in South Korea. It is here where So-young and Dong-hyun are able to see each other’s perspectives (one wanting to forget their past and the other desperately wanting to know more about it), come together and heal. Things might not be easy in their new home and we don’t know what the future holds for them but at least they are able to see each other clearly now.
Shim gives equal weight to the main characters’ very different perspectives, showing us the loneliness and frustration they feel in their lives, So-young’s sacrifices as a mother and the love she feels. We see this through the exceptional performances by the two lead actors. It’s a difficult and moving look at the struggles immigrants go through to make better lives for themselves and those they love. I commend Shim for such strong work on only his second film.