Always the dream

Anthony Shim on multitasking and avoiding compromises to make Riceboy Sleeps

by Jennie Kermode

Riceboy Sleeps
Riceboy Sleeps Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Director Anthony Shim and I are both a bit out of breath when we catch up to discuss his new film, Riceboy Sleeps. It has been a hectic morning for each of us, and as we relax with hot drinks and begin to reflect on the amazing success of this independent Korean Canadian tale, which follows a mother and son’s journey to make sense of their dual identity, I remark that every day recently must have been pretty full on for him, in light of the attention it’s getting.

“Oh, absolutely. It’s something that one might hope for or fantasise about happening, but there was no way that we could actually think this far and think that it could do the things that it has done. So this has all been a wonderful, whirlwind experience.”

It’s coming up for a screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, which sadly he won’t be able to attend – he tells me that he’s always wanted to visit Scotland. I assure him that, on the strength of this, there are likely to be further opportunities. We talk briefly about his background and he explains that this is a semi-autobiographical film.

“I had always wanted to make a film one day about my experiences growing up as an immigrant in the Nineties. We grew up in these small towns in BC. My background is in theatre, and I used to run a couple of different theatre companies. I wanted to try filmmaking. I just didn't know how to break into it. Because I never went to film school, I didn't make shorts growing up. You know, I didn't really know anyone at that industry.

“I had written this one act play. My producer partner said, ‘You know, if you write 30 more pages, you shoot that as a feature film.’ And so we did just that, and that was my first introduction to making films. That was our first film, and it didn't do very well. There were a lot of flaws in it. For me it was more like an experiment, to see if I could even do it, because I had no experience of it. So we made a film and it didn’t do very well, but it did give me the opportunity to make another film.

“That's when I thought ‘Okay, I may never get to do this again. This might be my one chance, so let me try and make the film that I always imagined and thought about wanting to make. And that was a story about a single Korean immigrant mother and her son struggling to acclimate in Canada, and then due to certain events they have to go back to Korea, and that's how we discover their identities and their relationships, by reconnecting with their past their family. That was the idea. And so I set out to write and then the pandemic happened. And I had a lot of time to write. And so that's how I got to work and it all happened quite fast. I wrote the script, got some funding from Telecom Canada. And then just slowly, one by one, everything else fell into place, and here we are.”

It’s a big challenge for him to have taken on early in his career, because he wrote, directed, edited and had a supporting role in it. Did he always intend to take on so much?

“It's a combination of a couple of things,” he says. “One of them is budget. We just didn't have the money to pay an editor at that point. I am not an editor, but I know how to edit and worked with an assistant editor and another senior editor. We’d done that together the first time around and then on this one I wanted to do the same thing. But then once we actually got to shooting and finishing we realised that we actually had not a lot to edit, so I ended up just editing it myself and going to them for advice and suggestions, so I had people that I could work with and bounce ideas off.

“I never learned how to do any of this stuff, I just did it because I had to do it, and I grew to love it. To me, editing is using almost the same creative muscles as writing. I'm still using words and pictures, and I really enjoy that. From writing to editing, that whole process for me is one continuous process. I don't see them as completely isolated aspects of filmmaking. It all blends together. And I try to overlap them as much as possible timeline wise, even in the discussions and the collaboration, the brainstorming.

“That's why I added the acting part. That was not planned, nor was it something I wanted to do. I intentionally never write characters that I could play, because I don't want that option to even exist. I had written the character as something very different, and then as time went on, as we got closer to shooting and doing rewrites, this character evolved into what it ultimately is. And in Vancouver, Canada, we don't have a huge pool of Korean actors in their thirties. It's a very small community to choose from, and we couldn't afford to fly anyone else in from the States or Korea or anything. So I ended up doing that, and it felt natural. It didn't feel like I'd be putting myself in a position where I could potentially ruin the film with bad performance. It felt close enough in my wheelhouse that I could be a director and an actor, and slip back and forth without making the actors’ lives difficult.”

I note that it’s often difficult to keep a critical distance from one’s work when taking on so many roles in production, especially when the material is semi-autobiographical. I think that’s something he does well here.

“I do think I'm pretty good at distancing myself from my own work, and being objective about what I'm doing. I'm actually prone to being insecure. To me the story is always most important and I always knew I could I could determine what felt appropriate or what was too much or too indulgent. So I think I have a pretty good gauge for that, but at the same time also, you have to have people you trust look at this stuff and believe that they can give you honest feedback.”

We talk about the opening narration. Some people say they find it a bit overwhelming, but to me it seemed important for setting the stage and letting us know that the son, at this stage, only really understands his mother’s past as a story.

“That opening narration, there was probably the most of my conversation around it. My point always was that it's not about the information. To me, it's about setting the stage and set the tone. My DP and I discussed a lot, in the early days, what the viewer’s perspective was going to be, and we decided that we wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the deceased father. And so that the idea was that the narration is actually being told by the father to the audience, and the camera is representing his being and his point of view and his emotional relationship with everybody, which then, in turn, motivated all the cameramen. So the the lack of editing, cutting scenes, the pacing, the framing, it informed everything, and to me, the narration really is important to set that tone, and that the movie begins and ends at the same place.

“I open with a sunrise and end with a sunset, so that there'll be a sense of coming full circle – the boy and this woman leaving their home, coming full circle, and ultimately coming to terms with who they are and what their home is. I had to establish that this is where the story began, visually, and then this is where we're working to get back to. The audience needs to consciously feel that longing.”

Did that factor into the decision to use different aspect ratios?

“Certainly. Yeah. I mean, it was something that I had written into the script even. I decided on it very early on. One of the main reasons why I wanted to switch the asset ratios was for the frame to almost represent the characters in their lives and their ability to take in their surroundings. And so for them to go to Canada, where Canada is a massive country geographically – it's one of the biggest countries in the world – and yet although there is so much of it, I've known a lot of Korean immigrant people who have lived here for decades and who've never been able to go outside of this small little world.

“You know, they go from their home to work, the neighbourhood restaurant, the grocery store, and then they're never able to take advantage of the beautiful, wonderful, massive things that this nation has to offer. Because they don't have the emotional capacity to be able to really see where they're living. They just get stuck in a rut. And then while they go back to Korea, which is such a small country, they're going with a different mindset, they're going with a different emotional availability. And there's a different intention and a goal. So I wanted that to be big. It almost represents how much more open they become.”

In Canada, the mother, Seo-young, only has a small group of people whom she’s comfortable with. That seems to make her life smaller.

“Yeah. We thought, even while the frame is tighter, my DP and I try to squish that even more by always trying to block part of the framing with doorways or windows or, you know, other people are always encroaching into her space. And then, in this massive amount of space, she's only able to have this tiny amount. That was to give almost a sense of claustrophobia for the audience. I was hoping that the audience would feel really squished in from the beginning. And you really only can get that if you get the opening narration where it's massive. And then you feel that smallness and get used to it over the course of an hour and 20 minutes, or whatever it is, and then when we come to the Korea and as the picture opens up it allows the audience and the characters to take a big breath and feel that release.”

It’s all the more visually impressive because it was shot on film. That seems rather a bold decision for a low budget production.

“Yes.” He laughs. “Bold, or maybe I was just being stubborn, not wanting to compromise. But it was important to me for a multitude of reasons. It was one of the first things I decided when I started talking to people about making this, because I knew everyone would try to talk me out of it, because of all the budgetary challenges that come with it, the logistical challenges. But it was important to me. I said from the beginning ‘There are three things that I won't budge on. We're shooting this on 16mm film. Korean characters will be played by Korean actors, and all the Korean scenes will be shot in Korea.’

“We knew it was inevitable that there was going to be a point where we looked at the budget and said ‘We don't have money for this movie,’ and those will be the three things that people would be tempted to cheat with, because that's where we’d save most of our money. So I just said from day one that we wouldn't do that. And then, yeah, shooting on film proved to be quite challenging. It proved to be more expensive than we thought. It was creating all sorts of limitations. But I think the picture looks incredible. I love the way it looks. And I can't imagine a sadder feeling than watching your movie and not liking the way it looks.

“I think it also helps create the world that we're building and set it in a space and time that I'm trying to convey. And then the picture has emotion that fits with what we were trying to convey. And that really helped. But the one of the best things about it, was that the limitations and the challenges that it put on us forced us to get more creative, more innovative, and prepare that much more, because we knew we had so little time to shoot that we would only get a couple of takes of most scenes. And we had a finite amount of film. It's something you can touch and feel, and you can you store it in your bag, like, ‘This is the film that we have. That's it.’ It's not an idea anymore. It's a real thing. Nobody want it to be the reason why a five minute take didn't work at four minutes and 30 seconds in. So it created a level of focus, attentiveness, and sort of locked in the whole cast and crew and everybody that was on set. And I think it resulted in a better film, I think it resulted in better performances.”

That sounds like something where a theatre background would help.

“Yes. And that was a big part of it. I mean, I knew that it's so hard to stand out in any way with a low budget, independent film, but I figured I should really rely on the things that I think I'm good at, and depend on those elements, instead of trying to make a film that I think might be amazing but I don't actually know how to do well. I know how to stage a scene and I know how to move bodies in a space and I knew that I could move the camera around in accordance with the performance movements really well. I knew I could hold a scene from start to finish without cutting.

“My brain naturally goes to thinking about pacing of dialogue, when pauses go, what's too much, what’s too little, what's going on with the audience's attention. I trained my brain to be that way so that okay, let's let's see if I can hold an audience's attention for an hour and a half or two hours just through performances, dialogue, camera movements. And, yes, it could have failed, it could have failed miserably. It's more likely than not it won't be successful. So I figured, you know, if that's the case, what am I afraid of? I might have failed because I was too scared or because I opted for mediocrity and played it safe. So I took that gamble, and I think it paid off. I'm incredibly proud of the film we made, and now it's out there and will be there forever.”

So does he plan to make more?

“I'm going to continue making feature films. That's always been the dream, that I can make make a film that would allow me to make another one. And then and, ultimately, I'd love to have a catalogue of movies that I've made throughout my life. So I've got a couple of projects that I'm working on. I’m pretty sure I know what the next film is going to be, and it almost feels like a continuation of me exploring some of the same themes that I was exploring in Riceboy Sleeps, but beyond what this film was able to explore.”

Riceboy Sleeps screens at the Glasgow Festival on 6 and 7 March.

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