Riceboy Sleeps (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Anthony Shim, Canada, 2022, 117 mins

Cast: Choi Seung-yoon, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Ethan Hwang

Review by Ben Thomas

Riceboy Sleeps, the second feature from director Anthony Shim, had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival this past week and is part of the Audience Award competition at the festival.

The film is utterly sublime, with an astonishing combination of camera movement, lighting and score. To describe it as dreamlike does a disservice to its groundedness. The film is drifting and devastating, creating deeply affective moments with ease. It is a film about reconnecting with family, the turmoil of life as a minority and the sacrifice of paternal love.

Riceboy Sleeps sets a mother-son relationship within the context of a Korean-Canadian immigration story. A prelude, spoken over a backdrop of mountains, sets up the complicated relationship in an efficient way, while introducing us to some of the transcendent natural imagery that re-emerges later in the story. It describes mother So-Young’s (Choi Seung-yoon) life. Born in 1960, she’s found on the steps of a temple—an orphan left all alone in the cold. She bounces from orphanage to orphanage before leaving for the city, where she works tirelessly. While there, she meets a young student finishing his military service. They become inseparable, but he suffers increasingly from schizophrenia. He takes his life in a psychiatric hospital. So-Young is left behind with her son, Dong-Hyun. He was born out of wedlock and can’t obtain Korean citizenship. She leaves Korea for Canada.

It’s now 1990, a young Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) bursts out of a school fire exit and sprints across the school field, trying to delay the inevitable. So-Young chases him, catching him at the fence and dragging him back inside. It’s his first day of school. As he walks into class, everybody stares. He looks back, avoiding contact, eyes magnified through his round glasses. From registration to lunchtime, it’s a day of unwanted questions. Is your name Dong-Hyun, or is it Kim? Ew, what is that—what’s he eating? Did you make lots of friends? Later, Dong-Hyun peers around the corner of the classroom door as So-Young is encouraged to choose an English name for him. The teacher suggests David, Dong-Hyun suggests Michael Jordan.

Riceboy Sleeps depicts the exclusionary experience of Korean immigrants in school and in the workplace. It is an experience that pushes children like Dong-Hyun in front of the mirror, pulling at their eyes, asking if they’re weird looking; an experience that forces differences in appearance, food and names to be hidden as best as they can. While the film isn’t breaking new ground with its subject matter, comparable to The Farewell, Minari, Columbus and After Yang, it is accomplished and affecting in its emotional moments. The story isn’t overflowing with originality, some of the characterising situations feel a little impersonal, more symbolic than specific, but there are very few missteps. The incidents bring So-Young and Dong-Hyun closer together as she encourages her son to quite literally fight for himself.

Dong-Hyun’s lack of a father-figure leads into the mystery of his family history, both of which are major themes in the film. In one scene, Dong-Hyun asks his mother about his father’s absence. So-Young, reluctant to talk about it, explains that he’s gone up to heaven and can’t come back. It’s just the two of them now. In 1999, Dong-Hyun (Ethan Hwang), now 16-years-old, wearing contacts and mid-length dyed blonde hair, is asked to construct a family tree for a school project. He is sent into a silent spin—encircled by the camera—thinking about the land his father called home. At the same time, his mother is coming to terms with the fast passing of time. She is aware of how things are changing. Dong-Hyun walks with friends to school now, he goes to parties, he is too sleepy for breakfast together. She entertains a new man. But mothers never stop worrying about their sons, wherever they are. The tone is near perfect.

The technical aspects of Riceboy Sleeps are flawless. The cinematography by Christopher Lew is exquisite, equally graceful and delicate. It is unconventional at times, making use of unmotivated movements (the camera seemingly moving of its own accord—perhaps the spirit of the father), and wide-angle lenses. In the opening movement of the film, nothing is settled: the camera is always moving in or away, its mobile, with no fixed position. So-Young and Dong-Hyun’s backs are often turned to the camera, they are hiding in plain sight. The film also uses a lot of frames within frames with doorways, long corridors and other objects cutting off space. There is great range, shifting to more expansive, static tripod shots later on in the film as the environment and mood changes. The cinematography is complemented by a beautiful melancholic piano score, by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee, that slowly sucks the oxygen out of your body and sustains it with something purer.

Riceboy Sleeps is essential viewing for anyone with a passion for great visual and verbal storytelling. The film carries an incredible sense of catharsis, best viewed standing up with hands on your head. The performances by Choi Seung-yoon, Dohyun Noel Hwang and Ethan Hwang have depth without robbing attention from the other elements of the film. The themes of the film are strong and well executed, and the technical aspects elevate the film even further. Riceboy Sleeps deserves to be seen on the big screen.