Eye For Film >> Movies >> Riceboy Sleeps (2022) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
The title of Anthony Shim’s semi-autobiographical film comes from an insult hurled at young Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) on his first day at school – his first taste of racism after moving from Korea to Canada. He will subsequently throw his gimbap in the bin and beg his mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) for a packed lunch more like those eaten by the other kids. There is no support whatsoever offered by the school, which treats his ethnicity as a problem to be solved and even asks his mother to give him a new name. She’s keen to fit in, and so he comes to be known as David in public – a name not used at home unless he’s in trouble. When she gets to know other Korean immigrants at work, So-young discovers that they, too, have changed their children’s names.
Taking away a name has been used throughout history as a technique to strip away less powerful people’s sense of their roots. Struggling to relate to his mother’s past in Korea as anything more than a story (narrated in an extensive opening sequence by a voice which Shim revealed is supposed to belong to his deceased father), Dong-hyun focuses hard on trying to fit in, confounded by the intermittent hostility he faces. When he fights back against bullies, he’s suspended. So-young stands up for him but says firmly that boys shouldn’t cry. Though she too is concerned with pleasing those around her, she has lines which she will not permit anyone to cross. When a work colleague slaps her arse, she turns on him with a fury which astonishes him. It’s a telling moment, pointing up the abuses which Canadian women at the time routinely put up with.
Most of the difficulties faced by the pair as they try to integrate take subtler form. At high school, Dong-hyun (now played by Ethan Hwang) is stumped when told to create a family tree (an exercise rarely used in schools today for just this sort of reason). He’s struggling to stay focused on anything at this point, taking drugs and avoiding his mother. When she receives some shocking news, they are both forced to reassess their relationship, and decide to take a trip to Korea in the hope of reconnecting with his grandparents and recovering their sense of who they are.
Just the second feature from Shim, who acknowledges that his first one was something of a practice run, Riceboy Sleeps, which screened as part of the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival, is an accomplished piece of work. It’s shot on 16mm film, which really pays off during the Korean scenes, giving it a lucidity and depth of colour still impossible to create any other way. Shim also switches aspect ratio in the second part of the film, so that we literally see the characters’ perspectives open up when they leave behind the claustrophobic urban landscapes of Canada. The brightness and clarity of this section reflects the sudden dawning of a new understanding in Dong-hyun, whilst So-young is finally able to address issues in her past and find something for herself in a life which has been all about her son.
Pivotal to her growth is Simon, a character played by Shim himself whom she meets in Canada and who surprises her with his reactions at a critical moment. Choi brings complexity and sometimes brittleness to a woman who, in lesser hands, might have seemed unrealistically sweet and self-sacrificing. There is a clear tribute here to Shim’s own mother and to any number of immigrants who work hard to make a better life for their children, but there’s more to her than that, and the friction and miscommunications between her and Dong-hyun keep the film grounded – as well as providing some of its best comedic moments.
There are still far too few immigrant narratives in film. The specificity of this one will delight Korean Canadian viewers, but there are many aspects of the story which will speak to people from different backgrounds who share that key experience, whilst the well drawn characters keep it accessible to a general audience. Punching well above its weight, the film is a triumph of independent filmmaking, and Shim should now be on every serious cinephile’s radar.Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2023
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