Anthony Shim: "Stories have to come from people who have empathy for them"
Anthony Shim has just come back from filming a television spot with Toronto news station CP24. He mentions that he was on the same program last fall before his film Riceboy Sleeps premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and how much has changed since then. When he first appeared on CP24, there was a great deal of optimism and wonderment over the film — how would people respond to it? Many accolades and a theatrical release later, Shim has his answer.
“We won the audience award there [The Glasgow Film Festival]; it’s the only award they have,” Shim tells me from his hotel room in Toronto over Zoom. “[The movie] has done surprisingly, amazingly well and we've won a lot of awards now in a lot of different places, but the Glasgow Audience Award...even now, I'm surprised.”
“It's just astounding to me that a film that I thought was so specific and so uniquely about me and my experiences and the Asian-Canadian experience, the Korean-Canadian experience, that I was afraid that I was isolating audiences,” marvels Shim. “And it actually turned out to be the opposite. I've gotten messages from people in Scotland, white Scottish people, being like, ‘I just saw the whole second half of the movie, it's incredible.’”
In addition to capturing the hearts of audiences around the world, Riceboy Sleeps has won Shim a Canadian Screen Award for screenwriting and the Jean-Marc Vallée DGC Discovery Award from the Directors Guild of Canada. To say the film has been a breakthrough feature for Shim is an understatement. Undoubtedly, the success of Riceboy Sleeps has, and will continue to, open doors for the director-writer in Canada and beyond.
While the film has put Shim on the proverbial map, he’s been working steadily as an actor since the early 2000s, thereby giving him a unique perspective to the Canadian film industry as a long-standing participant and as an “emerging” filmmaker.
Who better, then, to wrap up The Asian Cut’s celebration of National Canadian Film Day, than Shim? The director behind one of our favourite films from last year offered his frank and honest opinions on representation, the state of Canadian film, and where he’d like to see the industry go.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
TAC: Representation and diversity have been hot topics the last few years to the point that they’ve become buzzwords. To what extent do you believe representation is important?
Anthony Shim: I think it's incredibly important — however, I don't think it should be a thing in order to just earn woke points by the public. I find it really uncomfortable when you can clearly see certain shows or films [and] you see the "token coloured person" that serves no real purpose to the story. They're simply planted to create this banana republic illusion where it's like, “Look at our fictional world — we're inclusive of all ethnicities!” But those characters who are people of colour aren't actually fully fleshed [out] multi-dimensional characters. That, I have an issue with.
I think we're in a major transition phase, but it's not just the responsibilities of those in positions of power [or] those doing the hiring. I think it's lazy to take the responsibility off our hands, and just say, “It's on you, people in positions of power, to hire us more.” A lot of those people are still white, so what are we saying [with that]? We're just demanding that they just give us roles? But why would they? And how could they provide the types of opportunities that [aren’t just window dressing]?
Those stories have to come from people who understand them, have lived it, who have empathy for them. It's important that people in our community who wish to be a part of this movement take responsibility and put ourselves in positions of leadership [and] in positions of power [to] tell our own stories. Then it could become sustainable and a cyclical thing that creates a permanent change, and not just a fad or trend.
That's my biggest concern, especially with Korean content. There's such a high demand, curiosity, and excitement around all things Korean in North America. I don't want it to be a trend or a fad that's going to come and go. In order to do that, I think we have to take advantage of this opportunity and create really great work. Help develop other really great, talented young actors, writers, producers, and artists so that, even if people no longer want to watch Korean content, we're still just creating good stories, and we're able to stand on our own merits.
Let’s talk about the Canadian film industry at large. It seems that a big mandate in Canadian film is to create a self-sustaining system where Canadians support Canadian films, similar to Hollywood, some European markets, Australia, etc. How plausible do you think that is in Canada? I mean, it’s not as if we don’t have the talent in Canada to achieve that.
No, certainly not. Whatever the current state of the Canadian film industry, it’s not due to a lack of talent. Some of the greatest directors and writers and actors working in Hollywood for the past 30-40 years have been Canadian.
If the Canadian film industry's goal is to compete with the U.S., it's a losing battle. I'm not sure what the goal is...if it’s to nurture and give opportunities to diverse voices and young storytellers to be able to get their first chance to get films made and potentially have the chance of having it seen on an international stage, then Canada is very successful in doing that. Where I'm currently at in my career is entirely due to the opportunities by Telefilm, CBC, the Harold Greenberg fund, [and] Crave. I somehow squeaked through and was able to make the film I wanted to make, and it's given me the opportunities to do bigger projects.
So if that's what we're saying the goal is, then absolutely I think Canada is doing that very well. But I think if it's about creating an industry of our own and competing with some of these other countries, like France, or Italy, or Korea or Japan? Then I think something does need to shift.
To your mind then, what needs to be done to improve the health of the Canadian film industry? Ideally, where would you like to see Canadian cinema go over the next 10 years or so?
Maybe it's a controversial thing to say and maybe I'll get in trouble for saying this: I would love to see less films get made, and [in return] at least the chance to make films of a certain calibre.
Every year, the number of films that get made through the Canadian system...it's a good amount. But I feel like it's so hard to make a really great film with that little money [provided by various Canadian filmmaking funds]. You look at Chandler [Levack]'s film, I Like Movies. That is the poster child of a film [made through Telefilm’s] Talent To Watch fund just beating all the odds. But for the most part, I really couldn't name five Talent To Watch-funded films since it started.
I'm really fortunate that there is always a demand for new writer-directors, especially right now if you're a person of colour. If you can speak multiple languages, you're even more in demand, so I've been lucky in [being] able to find opportunities to continue to make films. Producers are different, though.
I would love to see more great [Canadian] producers and find ways to keep them in the country. Because if we have more great producers who have access to somewhat comparable funds [as in the U.S.], then I feel like it would help keep Canadian talent in Canada.
At the end of the day, I would love to continue making films in Canada. This is where I'm from, this is what I'm familiar with, this is where my friends are. The people I want to work with are Canadian! I want to continue doing that, but also, I'm not going to compromise other opportunities. I don't know...I mean, why isn't Denis Villeneuve making more films in Canada?
I guess you can say the same thing about James Cameron. Canada really produced some of the greatest directors of our time, to your point earlier.
It has produced and nurtured some of the great talents in the world. It really has.
You know, Canadians I'm sure don't like to hear this, but I've been in Chicago for the last five weeks working on a TV show. I can’t remember what I was talking about, something Canada-related, and the amount of disrespect and the lack of awareness for the Canadian film industry or even Canadian talent is shocking. I was in a van with people from the show, and they’re like, “We love Canada.” I was like, “Name me five Canadian films.” No one could do it.
[Laughs] To be fair, I don’t know how many Canadians can name five Canadian films.
Yeah, but then I would ask them to name five Canadian directors, and they couldn't do it. But if I start listing them off, everybody knows them.
Let’s wrap on this question then — what’s your favourite Canadian movie?
I think it’s still Incendies. I don't even say it's my favourite Canadian movie, it's one of my favourite movies of all time. I constantly go back to [it] for inspiration. How do you do that sequence? How did that cut work? I’m constantly going back. The images and the sounds — it stays with you for a long time. There are other really great Canadian films that I love, but nothing has stuck with me the way that one has.
Great choice. Denis Villeneuve is probably my favourite working director today, Canadian or not.
I love his films. I even love the big budget films he does. Sicario and Blade Runner 2049 — those are great films. But it's his early movies that really stick with me, and that is why I say I'm a big fan. He could have never made Blade Runner 2049 and Dune and those types of films, and I'd still be talking about him the same way. I almost forget that it's the same director. Now he's on that Steven Spielberg, James Cameron status.
He and Christopher Nolan are two directors who I wish would do small indie stuff again. I feel like they’d turn out some really cool shit if they did.
Yeah, but at the same time, I think it's so important that those guys keep doing what they're doing. They're some of the very few filmmakers in the world who are making these massive blockbuster, epic films that people go watch, and they still have substance, heart, and an artistry behind it. There's so far and few in between — it’s Marvel movies and Disney, and then the Nolan film.
They’re the only connection between the indie film world and the blockbuster world right now. So I know what you're saying, but I do hope they keep making the types of films they make, and people keep watching them and celebrate them.
That’s a really good point. I can’t see Nolan going down the indie track anytime soon anyways.
That's like Wolfgang Puck opening a food truck.