Riceboy Sleeps

Dohyun Noel Hwang and Choi Seung-yoon in Riceboy Sleeps. Image courtesy Icon Film

M, 117 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

After watching this migrant story about leaving Korea behind and building a new life in Canada, I found food was frequently mentioned in my viewing notes. Eating, alone or in company, frequently has key significance in some of the key scenes in this film with a title based on schoolyard taunt.

In one such significant moment, a young single mother prepares a feast for her schoolboy son. Their kitchen table is covered with a spread of traditional delectables like his favourite kim chi and jeotgal, but the boy is thinking ahead and worried about what he will find in his lunchbox the next day. He just wants the same food as the other kids at school. It’s a heartrending but oh so relatable moment.

Dong Hyun (played as a six-year-old by Dohyun Noel Hwang), is the ‘rice boy’ to some of his crueller classmates, singled out for looking different and eating different. It’s safe to assume that similar experiences while young are embedded in the memories of the filmmaker Anthony Shim from the time when he landed in west coast Canada in the mid-1990s. This is his second feature film.

Shunned by family and strict Korean social mores, they struck out for a new life

The past that the two main characters, the tiny family unit of young single mother So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon) and Dong Hyun, left behind is summarised in broad brush strokes. A young woman without family of her own had fallen in love with a young student and had their child, but when the young man took his life they were not married. Shunned by his family and the strict mores of Korean society, she had decided to strike out for a new life in Canada.

On the other side of the North Pacific, So-Young discovers that things are not a lot easier. She secures a mind-numbing job in a factory where she is at first the only Asian person. This ratio changes over time, and she eventually has a wide circle of workmates who eat rice and use chopsticks at lunch, but she still has to stand up for herself. Luckily, she is pretty good at it, during incidents that remind us how far what’s acceptable has travelled in a short 30 years.

Meanwhile, Dong Hyun has had to fight his own battles in the school playground. After a distressing incident in which a child runs away with his glasses and others gang up to spit on him. He lands a punch on one of his tormentors, and he and his mother are hauled before the principal. None of the parents of any of the other children are called in, leaving So-Young to fend for herself, showing a proud and indomitable spirit at times, but there is also a toughness that she tries to instil in her confused, unhappy son. Remember, you come from the land of tae kwon do!

There’s a shift in mood nine years later, with Dong Hyun a bolshi adolescent played by Ethan Hwang. He wears contact lenses with a blue tint, an undercut dyed blond, and a tank top, and makes a good fit with his group of friends. The relationship between him and his mom is typically stressed for those daunting parenting years, though her admirer Simon (Anthony Shim himself in this small role) tries to make the peace.

Made for those with a hyphenated identity, this has the affecting authenticity of lived experience

When we get to the resolution scenes set in Korea, they are predictable yet heartfelt. A homecoming set among the liberating beauty of landscapes that is such a contrast with the confining dark interiors filmed in boxy aspect ratio that characterised the earlier scenes.  The panning camera during long, languid single takes is interesting, occasionally irritating when the point behind the aesthetic flourishes escaped me.

Korean-Canadian writer-director Shim has said that he made it on behalf of everyone with a hyphenated identity, who hovers between their original and their adopted cultures. Inspired by his own life since arriving in Vancouver as an eight-year-old, it has an affecting authenticity that speaks from lived experience.

Riceboy Sleeps is not wildly revelatory or unpredictable, yet there is an authenticity that is eventually moving and convincing. Perhaps it’s no surprise it is compared with Minari, another film with food in its title, about an immigrant Korean family struggling bravely in their new home in the US. Transitions between different cultures can’t be easy.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 February 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes