A plaintive, largely melancholic coming-of-age story, writer-director-editor Anthony Shim documents his childhood as a Korean immigrant in 1990s Canada in the intermittently cloying but mostly affecting Riceboy Sleeps. Part autobiographical portrait of a difficult upbringing, the film is also a paean to his mother, a single parent struggling to raise a child in unfamiliar, mostly inhospitable surroundings. Loosely divided into three sections, the film begins with So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) forcing six year old Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) to attend the first day of kindergarten. He wants to stay home with his mother, and for good reason — the other children mock his appearance, make fun of the food he brings for lunch, and mercilessly pick on him on the playground. So-young faces similar adversity at her factory job, either ignored or harassed by her largely male, Caucasian co-workers. These early scenes are a litany of abuses, mother and child facing both inadvertent and bald-faced racism; a teacher cheerfully presents So-young with a pre-prepared list of anglicized names to call Dong-hyun, while a particularly hurtful scene finds young Dong-hyun fighting back against bullies who steal his glasses and spit on him, only for school administrators to suspend him but not his attackers. So-young protests the unfair double standard, but is ignored, referred to simply as “that Oriental lady.”
After roughly 30 minutes, the film jumps from 1990 to 1999: Dong-hyun (now played by Ethan Hwang) is 15 and a sophomore in high school. Much has changed in 9 years; he goes by David now, has dyed-blonde hair, and wears blue contacts. He has friends, but still deals with occasional bigotry. So-young is still at the same factory, although (in a nice, subtle touch) almost all of her coworkers are now immigrant women. So-young has a nice camaraderie with the other women, and is dating a foreman, Simon (played by director Anthony Shim himself in a gently self-effacing turn), a fellow Korean immigrant adopted as a baby by white parents. There’s a fair amount of typical teenage angst on display here, and for a while So-young’s daily routine at the factory becomes more interesting than Dong-hyun’s misadventures at school. But the plot thickens, so to speak, when So-young is diagnosed with terminal stage 4 pancreatic cancer and decides to take Dong-hyun with her back to Korea. After years of refusing to speak about it, she is finally prepared to relive the trauma of Dong-hyun’s father’s death and reconnect with her extended family.
Not everything here works; the film begins with narration that explains the death of Dong-hyun’s father, the aftermath of which lingers like a specter over the rest of the narrative. There’s some heavy-handed contrivances on display, as well, namely Dong-hyun being assigned a family tree project at school that precipitates his interest in the father he never knew while forcing So-young to confront long-buried emotions. There’s a shapeless quality to the proceedings, with lovely moments of carefully observed, lived-in experience butting up against screenwriter 101 platitudes. Shim can shape wonderful individual moments, but can’t always connect them in meaningful ways. Still, the entire cast is remarkable, papering over the occasional rough spot.
And Shim, working with cinematographer Christopher Lew and production designer Louisa Birkin, has constructed a stunningly beautiful-looking movie. Clearly indebted to Malick (particularly The Tree of Life) and Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, Shim deploys an extremely active camera to enliven the proceedings. Elaborate steadicam and dolly shots are constantly moving in and around each scene, as if probing for the perfect angle. Shim likes to begin and end sequences with the camera slowly pushing in on its subjects, adding a kind of tension to otherwise quotidian moments of conversation or mild conflict. Everything is constantly shifting, rearranging, shuffling, the camera movements carving up space in curious but fascinating ways. There’s a fine, minimalist score by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee that compliments with an ominous mood while never overpowering the actors on screen. What eventually emerges is a powerful ode to community and family, a movement away from isolation and forced stoicism toward embracing one’s emotions. Shim suggests that while the fight-or-flight response might never fully go away, it can be alleviated by communication and togetherness. There’s much to admire in this imperfect but honest film, and Shim is a filmmaker to watch.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Distpach 7.