The thought of embarking on the tedious process of ideating, conceptualizing, and crafting a film is rarely taken without a deeply personal motivation, unless, of course, it is commercial cinema. Riceboy Sleeps clearly doesn’t fall into this category as the director touches on his own recollections to tell a story that will tug at the heartstrings of families and immigrants; it will bring to life the need to embrace one’s culture and roots, irrespective of the geographical, stereotypical, or prejudicial challenges, but also evolve with each ticking second.
When one expects a deeply personal story, they may mostly remember Roma and expect a film to follow that trajectory. There aren’t any exciting ‘cinematic blockbuster’ scenes, but a plethora of quiet moments that seem like a film about everyday life will resonate with an individual from some walk of life. Anthony Shim’s second directorial has a visible three-act structure, focusing on three different phases of the lives of So-young and Kim Dong-hyun. It toes the established pattern of the traditional three acts, i.e. setup, conflict, and resolution. These are clearly visible with Christopher Lew’s camera lingering on moments to make one notice them. It is his efforts that take an ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. The dance between So-young and her male friend comes to mind.
Riceboy Sleeps focuses on So-young and her son Kim Dong-hyun. Audiences get a message about Young’s tumultuous journey from her childhood spent in orphanages to adulthood. After her husband takes his life, the young mother takes her infant son halfway across the world in search of a better life for both of them. Once there, they go on a long journey with the themes of a family (the central one), racism, and assimilation (supporting themes) taking center stage in an evolving social setting.
I like how this film touches upon the plight of immigrants in an era where instant connectivity was a luxury. People really stood out and had to put their heads down and grit it out. They could have easily packed up and headed back, but how would that help? What if going back was not an option due to deep trauma and rejection?
How they battle it, or rather, live with it, persevere, form bonds with others, and survive with their immediate support systems is what comes to the fore in Riceboy Sleeps.
Racism is a theme in the initial part of the film, with impressionable minds serving like sponges. While the mother could stand her ground and lay down the law through her hard upbringing, the son got into trouble. Whilst this brought the child-parent duo closer, its disappearance triggered a lack of common ground. Assimilation is another theme, and Anthony Shim ensures that this is visible. Riceboy Sleeps relies less on subtitles and more on English, showing the gradual eradication of the motherland.
Rifts emerge here in a big way, but the aspect of the family remains the centerpiece throughout. By family, one would imagine the extended ones, but it is the immediate ones, as it is just the mother and son together.
As the central protagonists, the three actors playing these two characters carry the weight of Riceboy Sleeps. Choi Seung-yoon must deal with the changing times and racism. The internal struggle she displays as she battles prejudice, harassment, and the gradual distancing from her adolescent son is what allows the family before everything theme to stand out. A memorable scene is when she acts as a rock of support for Kim Dong-hyun when he asks her a question about him looking different; the moment when she cleans his wounds is another such instance.
Watching Dohyun Noel Hwang was symbolic of the way in which children wish to be accepted. When the child actor’s rice is ridiculed, he tosses it in the trash and even asks for something else for his lunch. He even pleads with his classmates to not call him “rice boy” before being an obedient son and listening to his mother. The innocence oozes out of his requests and his frustration.
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Finally, Ethan Hwang of The Umbrella Academy fame stars as the adolescent Kim Dong-hyun. His role as the conflicted rebel feels natural and draws sympathy toward Seung-yoon’s character. It is the astute portrayal of their characters that helps the third arc thrive and gives the film some meaning.
Riceboy Sleeps is a tale about how the ties of the family run deep. Its focus on how one is always connected to their roots can really captivate one and all. However, this may be a film purely for the film festival audience.