When we first meet Kim Dong-hyun (played as a child by Dohyun Noel Hwang), he’s attempting to flee the grounds of an elementary school he desperately doesn’t want to attend. It’s early 1990s Canada, and Dong-hyun has recently emigrated from Korea with his loving but firm mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon)—and the way she forcibly redirects him across the intimidating threshold of his first grade class, as well as her behaviour as a worker and parent, reveals everything about her immigrant principles. This will be difficult, and she will fight for him when she can, but they are not going to submit to fear and assimilate meekly. They’re doing this on their own terms.
The rest of Riceboy Sleeps, where a teenage Dong-hyun is played by Ethan Hwang, serves to challenge and chisel at So-young’s resolute values toward assimilation. So-young and Dong-hyun shoulder immense burdens that, even between two languages, they struggle to articulate, as they reckon with what they’ve been asked to compromise by both Canadian society and, heartbreakingly, each other. Director Anthony Shim and cinematographer Christopher Lew capture life for the Kims in roving camera shots that move with precision and hone in on intimate details, as our characters feel overwhelmed in crowded spaces or fight to find connection in claustrophobic ones.
As a child, Dong-hyun looks at himself in the mirror, pulling on his skin to alter his facial features; as a teenager, he shrinks when he’s told he must present a family tree for class. Throughout his young life, Dong-hyun is asked to consider himself. These are some of the first and most intimidating instances where a spotlight is shone onto his othered identity. We’re constantly reminded of the direct and implicit demands to assimilate that So-young and Dong-hyun have to agree to, as if there’s a concrete, graspable endpoint being offered at the end of the road. But does the immigrant experience ever finish? Is there an ideal identity that manifests, one that cleanly balances the new home and the old one, or is the only thing that every experience has in common is that they are all complex, painful, and constant?
Riceboy Sleeps is not a dour watch, rather filled with a grace that lingers in the pit of your stomach long after the credits appear. It’s a film that seeks to decipher why communication is such a difficult task for immigrants, an interrogation of English as an adopted language, with all the bridges it builds and obstacles it presents. Why is So-young able to jokingly thirst over Kevin Costner with her multilingual colleagues but feels passionless and distant when Simon, her Korean-American partner, proposes to her? (Simon is played by Shim—a striking casting choice, seeing as Simon has most effectively assimilated while a lot of So-young and Dong-hyun’s story is drawn from Shim’s personal experience.) The film opens with a voice explaining So-young’s history before leaving for Canada, framing the film like a story being looked back on—can she see the power of her resilience or is she regretful that so much was demanded of her?
While So-young flits between her learned English and native Korean, Shim knows that empathy is a richer tongue to express suffering, desire, loneliness, and love wordlessly.
It’s a difficult task to communicate a character’s complicated emotional state while they themselves struggle to express their pain in two spoken languages. But while So-young flits between her learned English and native Korean throughout the film, Shim knows that empathy is a richer tongue to express suffering, desire, loneliness, and love wordlessly. It’s a difficult task made to look effortless by the precise direction and tremendous lead performances, made even more impressive by the fact that, for all three main actors, Riceboy Sleeps is a feature film debut. Choi imbues every sentence with passion and conviction, whether she’s fighting against prejudice in heavily accented English or slipping into a mixture of languages trying to connect with her son.
In a particularly trying scene, a doctor’s appointment turns into a nightmare with a cancer diagnosis that, more than any other interaction with English-speakers in the film, So-young struggles to understand. Perhaps it’s a defence mechanism to linguistically cut her off from upsetting news. The scene is painful to sit through as we watch So-young flick desperately through a dictionary to understand the basics of her condition, not to mention how plainly and flatly she responds to the doctor’s speech. Not only is her life being irrevocably altered, she’s been asked to process it in a foreign language. The combative assertiveness we’ve seen her fire at senior colleagues and authority figures is all gone; this is a new low in a lifetime of isolation.
Even though teenage Dong-hyun speaks English more fluently than his mother, Shim makes clear parallels between his mother’s communication problems and her son’s. Just as folklore is used to convey complex meaning in the film, so too can violence. Dong-hyun has internalised his mother’s early instruction to fight back against prejudice, so he attacks a classmate who’s targeting another Asian student. When the bully assaults him at a house party, Dong-hyun returns bleeding to his mother’s arms, whose own distress at her health has reached critical levels. Something about huddling their wounded bodies together—watched by a pet tortoise—allows them to express a vulnerability at the injustice of their position that hadn’t been fully expressed previously. It makes them realise where they need to go: back to a home they’ve worked hard to elide from their identity.
The last half hour is set entirely in Korea, and apart from a few sentences, only Korean is spoken. The film opens up into wide-open, naturally-lit spaces, and as Dong-hyun learns about his home country’s customs and who his father was, So-young is offered a resolution to a seismic, multifaceted grief she’s felt since moving to Canada. Korea has been holding onto her and her son, even if he never realised it. And it’s only on their return do they make their peace with the fact that it will always faintly pull at them the rest of their lives. In the end, Riceboy Sleeps resembles the folktales present in the story: resonant, melancholic, open-ended. A new meaning is gained, an old love rekindled.
Riceboy Sleeps made its UK premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Read our exclusive interview with director Anthony Shim here.