Directed by: Anthony Shim
Written by: Anthony Shim
Starring: Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Anthony Shim, Hunter Dillon, Jerina Son
Released: February 1, 2024
Grade: A-

Riceboy Sleeps

Drawing on his own family’s experience, writer-director Anthony Shim wanted to craft a film which showed the challenges of uprooting from one country and crafting a new life in another.  The topic has already been covered in wonderful films such as Minari, Brooklyn and The Namesake, but Riceboy Sleeps shows there is room for more.  In winning the best screenplay prize at the 2023 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, I’m not alone in describing this as a rich, beautifully-told tale.

The opening act takes place in 1990 where a single mother, So-Young (Seung-yoon), and her 6-year-old son, Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang), have emigrated from South Korea to Canada.  It’s a rough time for both.  The mum takes a dead-end factory job where she’s on her feet all day and subjected to workplace harassment.  The child, who can barely speak English, has to assimilate into a new school where he his teased about his background and appearance.

Shim wanted to highlight the lack of compassion and empathy that many have for migrants.  The film is set in Canada but, as we’ve seen in Australia with “love it or leave” taunts, the feelings exist all over the world.  There’s a powerful scene where Dong-Hyun is teased about bringing sushi to school (the kids have sandwiches) and so he tosses it in the bathroom bin so as not to attract further attention.  Not long after, a school teacher suggests to So-Young that she give her son a Western-sounding name to, once again, help him fit in.

These moments ask audiences to reflect on multiculturalism within our societies.  To what extent should immigrants adjust to fit with the country’s existing norms?  Riceboy Sleeps offers two interesting perspectives.  So-Young grew up in Korea and has that culture engrained within, whereas Doing-Hyun will grow up in Canada and become more Westerised.  This is on show in the film’s second act where we fast-forward to the year 1999 and see how things have changed for the two leads.  There’s tension between them.  Is this because of their different upbringings, or is it just because teenagers usually rebel in garnering a sense of independence?

Choi Seung-yoon is superb in portraying So-Young as the mum who is always putting the needs of others, particularly her son, ahead of her own.  It’s hard to believe this is her first feature film performance!  From the difficulties of grasping the English language, to the turmoil created from her pent-up emotions, she has created a complex character who audiences will care about.  We sympathise with her plight… while also questioning the decisions she makes (are they the right ones?)

It’s been over 16 months since Riceboy Sleeps had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival and it’s nice to see getting a small window in Australian cinemas.  It’s worth your time and money.