Early in Riceboy Sleeps, the delicate sophomore feature from director Anthony Shim, the camera slowly moves behind young Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) as fellow grade one classmates begin to swarm him at lunch time. The sense of claustrophobia washes over the scene as they crowd around him mocking the smell and look of his food. This is one of many moments in the film where either Dong-hyun or his mother feel the walls of a country, they never fully feel housed in, closing in on them.
Presenting an intimate observation of the immigrant experience in Canada, Shim’s 1990s set coming-of-age film is a story about identity and the rocky road towards embracing one’s heritage. The opening makes it clear that life has never been easy for Korean single-mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon). Left widowed after the love of her life, a former solider suffering from schizophrenia, committed suicide, she set out for Canada to make a better life for her and her young son. Unfortunately, the land of prosperity and inclusion has been anything but for the pair.
Working a factory job, So-young experiences her share of racism and sexual harassment on the job. While strong-willed and willing to call out those who treat her unfairly, her son wants nothing more than to assimilate into western culture. Once frequently bullied as a kid, the moody teenage Dong-hyun (played by Ethan Hwang) now wears blue contacts and dyes his hair blond. As the mother and son find themselves drifting further apart, So-young gets some medical news that will forever change their dynamics and force them both to confront a past that they can no longer ignore.
As So-young and Dong-hyun slowly work towards a common understanding, Shim’s film quietly builds its house of emotion, each brick more intricate than the next. Capturing the sense of isolation and frustration that comes with constantly being viewed as the other, the film effectively highlights how prevalent systemic racism is in Canada. Frequently moving his camera in scenes and using close-ups to emphasize the danger that is society at large lurking just off screen, often heard before being seen, Shim conveys the constrictive fishbowl immigrants are often placed in. One where they are both victimized and also accused of being the source of the problem by their abusers.
All of this adds an additional layer to the pressure of conformity that is prevalent in the spaces Shim’s characters exist in. The repression of one’s true self is felt throughout the film, including when Dong-hyun assumes the anglicized name “David” at the urging of his teacher. Packing his characters in the same compressor many immigrants are placed in, Shim only hits the release value when the mother and son take an impromptu trip to Korea to see So-young’s estranged family.
It is in Korea where the characters and the film itself, the aspect ratio fills the full screen for the first time, finally takes time to properly breathe. Although the latter section of the film is filled with plenty of unresolved familial tension, Shim finds the sense of beauty and catharsis that often comes with embracing one’s roots. Propelled by wonderful performances by Choi Seung-yoon and Ethan Hwang, whose faces convey so much, there is not a false moment in the film. A meditative and moving work, Riceboy Sleeps is an intimate story with universal appeal.