There are universal aspects to every immigrant story. One does not have to be the child of an immigrant or have a connection to one, but through the themes of strained relationships, not fitting in or even the important role food plays in your life, there is something for everyone regardless of how personal the story may seem. The same must be said for Anthony Shim's ('Daughter') 'Riceboy Sleeps', a delicate and heartfelt film that tackles the weight of immigration on a family.
The film opens with a voiceover monologue introducing audiences to So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), a young single mother who through all her trials and tribulations, has ended up in the suburbs of Canada, dreaming of a better life for her son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang). So-Young hasn't had an easy life, but her astute determination and wholehearted love for her child propels her to sacrifice whatever she can in order for her son to excel.
Life proves difficult for both mother and son. Language is of course a hurdle, but add to that the innate feeling of division and the struggle feels all too real. There is a scene where a young Dong-Hyun takes out his lunch on his first day and instead of having sandwiches like everyone else, he has sushi and kimchi which, as you can imagine, doesn't exactly sit well with his fellow classmates. He returns home to sheepishly ask his mother to pack him sandwiches, and it is a gut-wrenching reminder of how difficult it is for children to find their place, let alone when coming from a different country. He changes his name on the advice of the school to David, emblematic of the struggle we so often hear about.
David (now played by Ethan Hwang, TV's 'The Umbrella Academy') grows up, and his mother too. While he toils with school, So-Young is growing more confident at work, aided by additional immigrant colleagues, and is even dating Simon (Shim) - a charismatic and caring partner who longs for her companionship. The strength of the family will continue to be tested as things continue to change, but what will always remain the same is So-Young's absolute dedication to her son.
'Riceboy Sleeps' is essentially split into three acts. At first there is the mother and son, teaming up against the world as fish out of water and trying to find their feet in a new home. Next, the film cuts to about ten years later and David is now a teenager, but the family drama has amped up to new heights. He's found friends and a place in school, but you can't shake the feeling that ultimately he just doesn't feel at home. Lastly, Shim takes the final act to Korea for a roots exploration, culminating in a sequence that feels comforting and an emotionally impactful finale.
All three sequences are, of course, centred on the themes of immigration and everything that encapsulates that, and having this extremely likeable mother and son duo at the heart of the film ensures that it can all be relatable regardless of background. Everyone has had arguments at the dinner table, everyone has disappointed their teachers or parents - and most vitally, everyone wants to find their place in all of this.
Shot on beautiful 16mm film, 'Riceboy Sleeps' as a period piece gives both a sense of texture and nostalgic memory from the 90s. The aspect ratio, along with the product design and camera placement, provide a cramped sensation that is expertly contrasted when audiences are then taken to Korea. In the Canadian suburbs, we never get a sense of awe or of space, but we are finally able to breathe when the Korean farmlands are shot with width, incredible colour and vastness. We as an audience can relax knowing we are comfortable. It's not to say that the scenes in Canada are claustrophobic or tense - in fact, you wouldn't necessarily feel the discomfort until it is compared to later scenes, but this purposeful contrast only further establishes how much of an internal struggle immigration can be. You never really truly feel at home. In Canada, you are Korean, and in Korea, you are Canadian. Once again, you certainly don't need to be either of these specific ethnicities to sympathise.
Having this extremely likeable mother and son duo at the heart of the film ensures that it can all be relatable regardless of background.
As well as the space and texture that Shim crafts the film with, he also uses this wonderful technique of lingering the camera on its subjects. Just when you would expect the shot to change or cut, Shim holds the frame in an almost desperate effort to stay close. It's not uncomfortable, but rather caring and honest in a way that gives you enough time to reflect on the environment and breath. We are invited to observe and feel a part of it all. I had not made this connection watching the film, but director of photography Christopher Lew talked about how he wanted the camera to be like So-Young's deceased husband watching over his family. It's certainly not an obvious connection, but goes some way to explain how the camera operates throughout the film.
The cast is all great, and it blew me away learning that this is Choi Seung-yoon's feature film debut. This film rests on her shoulders but she carries it with the same strength that is required of a single mother.
There are many films centred on the immigrant story and there is little here that we have not seen before. But, this should not take anything away from the tender and emotional film that Shim has crafted. There are numerous universal ideas that audiences will gravitate towards, and the way Shim draws on his own personal story to get there is laudable. Shot beautifully and impactful from the first minute to the last, 'Riceboy Sleeps' is deserving of a far greater audience than I fear it may get.