Written and directed by Anthony Shim
Starring Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang and Dohyun Noel Hwang
Classification N/A; 117 minutes
Opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal March 17, with additional cities to follow
The most obvious comparison to make when talking about the excellent new Canadian film Riceboy Sleeps is to call it this country’s answer to Minari. Certainly, the two films share subject matter (Korean immigrants finding their footing in a new country) and a deeply contemplative sensibility, the latter of which helped earn Minari six Academy Award nominations in 2021. But that is the easy comparison to make. And there is nothing about Riceboy Sleeps – its construction, its performances, its confidence – that feels easily come by.
The second feature from the Vancouver-based Anthony Shim, Riceboy Sleeps is loosely based on the writer-director’s own upbringing, and takes full advantage of Telefilm Canada’s recently relaxed regulations on funding productions that involve languages other than English, French or Indigenous languages. This is a fully bilingual affair that jumps decades and continents, bursting with ambition and energy, albeit in that quietly Canadian kind of way. Whereas Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari leaned back on its sunny disposition like an instinctual reflex, Riceboy Sleeps takes the tougher, harder approach to kick through the darkness. But once it breaks through that wall, the daylight bleeds in, blindingly bright.
A brief but dense prologue establishes Riceboy Sleeps’ backstory: So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) was orphaned at birth in South Korea, eventually working hard to make her way in the country. After meeting a man, falling in love and becoming pregnant, So-young was soon left alone again when her partner killed himself. With nowhere and no one in her homeland to turn to, the young woman moved to Canada to make a fresh start for herself and her newborn son, Dong-Hyun.
The first third of the film takes place in the early 1990s, with So-young now based in Vancouver. Her dream of a better life is far from realized, though: Her factory work is lifeless when it isn’t outright hostile, and the now school-age Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) is relentlessly bullied on the playground, teased for his lunches of gimbap and kimchi.
Nobody, it seems, is in a position to genuinely help the mother and son, either. So-young receives a gentle suggestion from Dong-Hyun’s teacher to change his name to something more anglicized (“I like ‘David’ best”), and she only has one friend, a fellow Korean factory worker whose only real connection is a shared first language. The mother and son have each other, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to hold them together.
Before Shim allows his audience to sink into the family’s tenderly depressing circumstances, though, his film jumps a decade-plus, and now the teenage Dong-Hyun (Ethan Hwang) has found his societal footing – or at least the kind of surly, confrontational footing familiar to North American parents. Meanwhile, So-young has built a solid community of friends at work, not to mention the courtship of an eager-to-please manager named Simon (played by Shim himself, giving the film an added Oedipal edge).
But something is still nagging at Dong-Hyun, and his mother, too. Which is when the film makes a surprising shift again, moving the action to rural South Korea, where the messy ruins of the past run headfirst into the promises of the future.
The film is as impressive in its technical approach as it is in its storytelling. Shim shoots coverage with a single camera, affording the director luxurious single-take scenes that allow the audience to watch the action like secret observers hiding in the shadows of a room. And when the film’s action moves from Canada to South Korea, the director shifts the aspect ratio to emphasize the wide, open space and possibilities of a home country that stretches forward, wide and seemingly endless.
Meanwhile, the young director coaxes truly wonderful performances from his central trio of actors, each asked to balance moments of tenderness, anxiety and hope.
By the time that Riceboy Sleeps reaches its ultimate destination, it is easy to see how Shim’s film won over the Toronto Film Critics Association, which last week awarded the movie its $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, the richest film prize in the country. This is a tender, ambitious, meticulous and deeply empathetic work. No easy or arbitrary comparisons necessary.