Anyone who’s ever opened up a lunchbox in grade school and had to deal with the teasing and taunting of classmates will identify with the young protagonist of Riceboy Sleeps, the remarkable feature by Vancouver actor and filmmaker Anthony Shim. For Dong-hyun — who is played by Dohyun Noel Hwang in the early scenes and Ethan Hwang as a teenager — “riceboy” is a jeer that wounds him deeply, compounding the confusion and alienation he feels as a newcomer to Canada. The sight of him later throwing out the Korean food he’s sent every day by his mother, So-young (Choi Seung-yoon), is poignant, and not just because of the shame he feels as the target of racist bullying. It’s because of how that hurt becomes another part of his increasingly fraught dynamic with the most important person in his life.
Indeed, for all its nuance as the tale of a young person trying to define himself, Shim’s film may be even more powerful as a tribute to the strength and resilience of an immigrant mom. Played by Choi with a measured intensity, So-young carries a terrible burden of sorrow that her son is slow to recognize. As the story moves to his teen years, Dong-hyun, now sporting dyed-blond hair and coloured contact lenses, seems too immersed in the turbulence of adolescence to notice much of anything beyond his own struggle to fit in. Inevitably, the conflicts between them intensify, yet it’s always clear how much these two need each other.
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Drawn from elements of Shim’s life as a Korean Canadian growing up in the suburbs of Vancouver in the 1990s, Riceboy Sleeps is distinguished by a sense of deeply felt authenticity. Its emotional richness has resonated with audiences and critics alike since its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it earned a prize for directorial vision before winning more awards at festivals in Sudbury, Ont., and Vancouver.
With its quiet, modest style and long shots that allow its best moments to breathe, Shim’s movie avoids easy sentimentality and easier resolutions. Instead, it’s uncommonly astute in its depiction of the pressures that come to bear on families as they try to transition into a sometimes hostile new culture.
Along with writing and directing the film, Shim makes a valuable contribution in front of the camera as Simon, a friend from the factory where So-young works. As he woos her with endearing patience and kindness, he too becomes a figure deserving of empathy, a quality Riceboy Sleeps generates in abundance.
So-young and Dong-hyun’s hurts may prevent them from fully understanding how much they share beyond their DNA. But on the other side of that pain, a new kind of bond is possible.
Riceboy Sleeps opens in theatres on March 17.
Jason Anderson is a writer and film programmer in Toronto.
This review first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2023 issue with the “The burden of belonging.”
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