“Riceboy Sleeps”, which won the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in last year, is a simple but sensitive drama about a Korean immigrant mother and her son. Calmly and thoughtfully following their little personal story, the movie gradually builds up its two main characters via a number of small but undeniably intimate moments to be appreciated, and it surely earns all the human emotions unfolded onto its rather melodramatic last act.
At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes the life background of a young South Korean woman named So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) and her little son. Although she was abandoned when she was very young, So-young managed to survive as being moved from one orphanage to another during next several years. Around the time she entered adulthood, she met some college student while working at a diner, and she and that lad were supposed to marry sooner or later, but, alas, due to his mental illness, he eventually committed suicide at a hospital not long after their son was born.
Because of her disadvantaged status as an unmarried mother, So-young decided to immigrate to Canada, where she came to work at some factory while raising her little son. When he becomes 6 years old in 1990, So-young takes him to a local elementary school, but Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) is understandably afraid of being separated from his mother, and he certainly feels quite awkward as the only Asian kid in his classroom.
At least, he feels comfortable again when he is back at home with his mother, but Dong-hyun continues to struggle as often ridiculed and ostracized by his schoolmates. Not so surprisingly, he inadvertently gets himself into a trouble on one day, and his mother is naturally quite frustrated with how her son is unfairly treated by even those schoolteachers, who regard So-young and her son with condescension mixed with racial prejudice.
Nevertheless, So-young and her son keep going on during next several years, and the second act of the film, which is set in 1999, shows how things have been a bit better for them than before. While So-young is still working in the same factory, she has been quite close to a gentle employee who is incidentally a Korean adoptee, and it looks like they can live together someday if Dong-hyun, who is now played by Ethan Hwang, does not mind this at all.
As he grows up to become your average rebellious teenager, Dong-hyun has been rather distant to his mother while spending more time with his schoolmates, but he also becomes more aware of his racial identity and heritage than before. When he and his classmates are tasked with a presentation on each own family background, he naturally feels more curious about his father than before, but his mother still does not tell anything to him because she has been through with her life in South Korea for years.
However, there comes an unexpected matter which shakes her up to considerable degree, and this certainly affects her relationship with Dong-hyun. After she reveals her bad news to her son later, he struggles to process this bad news while causing another trouble at his school, and that consequently puts more distance between him and his mother.
Now this is surely a familiar setup for more melodrama to come, but the screenplay by director/writer/editor Andrew Shim, which is partially based on his own immigrant experience in Canada, patiently builds up its emotional momentum via a series of sincere human moments to cherish. In case of one particular scene between So-young and the aforementioned Korean employee who eventually proposes to her, it feels a bit too symbolic when So-young tells him a certain old folk tale, but her storytelling moment is accompanied with the genuine emotions from her serene face, and we are touched more by how this scene later resonates with the last scene between her and her son.
Shim and his cinematographer Christopher Lew shot the film on 16mm film, and the resulting grainy visual quality of the film effectively accentuates its period background. Presenting most of his film in 1:33 screen ratio, Shim often focuses more on his performers’ expressive faces, and his three main performers are all convincing in their respective roles. While Choi Seung-yoon’s understated performance gracefully carries the film along with small details and nuances to be observed, Dohyun Noel Hwang and Ethan Hwang are flawlessly connected with each other in their acting, and both of them respectively complement Choi well on the whole.
In conclusion, “Riceboy Sleep” is a slow but rewarding experience which can function as a window to a specific immigrant experience which comes to reveal more universal aspects than expected, and it is surely another interesting Asian immigrant drama film to be compared with Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020), which is incidentally about a Korean immigrant family trying to settle in a remote area of Arkansas. Although this is only the second feature film after his small debut feature film “Daughter” (2019), Shim demonstrates here that he is a promising filmmaker with considerable potential, and it will be interesting to see what may come from him during next several years.