Review: Riceboy Sleeps

Written and directed by Anthony Shim, who also stars in the film, set in the 90s, a Korean single mother raises her young son in the suburbs of Canada determined to provide a better life for him than the one she left behind. Starring: Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Hunter Dillon, Jerina Son, Kang In Sung, Jong-ryol Choi and Yong-nyeo Lee.

One of the things that’s immediately apparent with Riceboy Sleeps is how these experiences echo countless others who were the first generation of their families to grow up in the west. It hits a number of points that you’ll hear in other films and television, particularly the school experience: the urge to fit in, the bullying, the lunches. That opens up the whole discussion of fitting in versus losing your heritage and undermining your parents’ hardship. It’s a difficult line to walk and especially in the fact that a teenager is always going to be more focused on easing their experience than on the consequences, until they’re flat out faced with them. Through Anthony Shim’s writing, he not only focuses on that emotional journey for Dong-Hyun (Ethan Hwang), he splits the perspective between him and his mother So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon).

That choice opens up the story so you can see it from both sides, exploring a lot of sympathy as it’s so easy to see both perceptions of the situation. Particularly when they’re both brought to life so superbly by Choi Seung-yoon and Ethan Hwang. Seung-yoon portrays an almost unlimited patience, which immediately imbibes her character with a sincere strength. Losing your partner in a traumatic way and moving to an entirely new country, speaking a different language and with a huge cultural barrier and prejudice, then having the thoughtfulness and resilience to take everything in your stride is extraordinary. Seung-yoon’s performance is a tribute to all the parents who lived it, who created that new life and soared over every hurdle. Hwang firstly creates that typical teen angst and rebellion then as time goes on the emotion deepens. He explores the anger and frustration, the responsibility and in the final act of Riceboy Sleeps he really comes into his own and makes you appreciate his character even more.

Special mention of course has to go to Dohyun Noel Hwang as the younger Dong-Hyun, whose performance rivals the sweetness, well-mannered and mischievousness of Alan S. Kim in Minari. As well as the fact that the two films would make a fantastic double bill. With this film Anthony Shim presents a quintuple threat: writing, directing, producing, editing and starring. All of which are done with an exceptional quality. His performance is touching and sweet, his direction and writing are full of genuine, authentic emotion and relatable experiences, and the editing is smooth and thoughtful. Topping it with Christopher Lew’s gorgeous cinematography, that not only does a brilliant job at evoking the era, but it’s also especially beautiful when the film moves to South Korea. The aesthetic that Lew brings is almost reminiscent of Terrence Malick in its sweeping, pensive landscape shots.

Riceboy Sleeps is another perfect addition to the new generation of filmmakers telling the experience of immigrants in an authentic way. Considering it’s a film that moves through repeatedly heart-breaking moments, Anthony Shim actually manages to end on a note of hope and fulfilment, which is remarkable. Choi Seung-yoon leads this film by bringing an exceptional level of strength, commitment and care to So-Young, alongside Ethan Hwang’s relatable and evolving portrayal of Dong-Hyun. It’s magnificently shot, the story is beyond moving and it holds an enveloping atmosphere, creating a full circle moment and an almost cathartic experience.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯½ | 9/10

Reviewed as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2023

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