Directed by Anthony Shim, Riceboy Sleeps is a tender portrait of a South Korean immigrant family set in 1990s suburban Canada. So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) is a newly widowed mother with a young son, Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang as a child and Ethan Hwang as a teen). Having moved to Canada on her own, So-young makes her way with incredible resilience, working a factory job to provide for her family while instilling cultural values in her son amidst a predominantly white and callously racist society. As Dong-hyun grows up, he pulls away from his mother’s proud heritage in order to fit into the mainstream, high school environment, but when tragedy falls upon So-young, bonds are re-forged between mother and son. The duo undertakes a poignant return to the motherland that helps Dong-hyun reconnect to the father he never knew, the culture he rebuffed, and brings emotional healing to the rebellious teenager.
The film is anchored by the quiet yet powerful performance by Choi as the model-minority-myth-busting So-young, whose petite frame belies someone who will not be pushed around. When school administrators call her in to discuss a fight that Dong-hyun was engaged in, she angrily points out the blatant racism that started the incident that they are ignoring. She also stands up to a man who gropes her at the factory where she works, only briefly considering walking away in the initial shock before doubling back with absolute fury in her eyes. Fiercely independent, she is prepared to face unimaginable hardship without the support of her beau, the Canadian-raised Korean Simon (director Shim in a supporting role) in order to spare him the trouble. Even as her only son withdraws from her, So-young proves to be a steadfast mother.
Riceboy Sleeps is an especially personal film for Shim, who is also the writer, editor, and producer on top of director and actor. Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Shim draws from personal experiences as a dual-culture kid. That conflict is well-manifested in Dong-hyun, with his appearance demonstrating his initial otherness, his later desire to fit in with his white peers, and finally his reconnection to his culture. It’s a very relatable story for many immigrant children who find themselves torn between identities, finding acceptance and rejection at different points of their lives. Riceboy Sleeps beautifully shows the heartache in those moments of shared hindsight and nostalgia.
The Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival is in-person and online from November 9 to 20.