(Written by Allison Brown)
Riceboy Sleeps, a tender coming-of-age film, broke my heart into a million pieces. What starts off as a wonderful fish-out-of-water immigrant tale bearing striking similarity to 2020’s Minari, morphs into a story much deeper and more tragic. Writer/director Anthony Shim follows young single mother So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), and her charming son, Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang, Ethan Hwang). Raised as an orphan, So-Young has a difficult life bouncing from one home to another. Once she finds love as an adult, she is forced to leave Korea after her schizophrenic partner, Han Won-Shik, commits suicide. As the two had not yet been married, their child, Dong-Hyun, is not recognized by the government as a citizen. This parable is told in a compelling manner with a narrator in the style of a fairy tale, with sweeping and luxurious landscapes in Asia displayed behind. Perhaps this is to set up a story akin to the American dream, except in Canada, where idealism eventually falls short.
So-Young moves to the Canadian suburbs to start fresh, but life is not as easy as expected. Dong-Hyun is bullied for eating “weird” food like gimbap, has his glasses ripped off his face, is nicknamed “Riceboy,” and receives no sympathy for the ridicule from the school faculty. They insist he choose a more understandable name; he eventually goes by David, although his mother keeps his birthname alive at home. I was brought to tears by pity for the poor, incredibly well-mannered little boy. When he asks his mother if he’s weird looking, I desperately wished I could give him a hug. I was bullied as a child, as are many, so I deeply related to David’s experience. The chemistry between Choi Seung-yoon and Dohyun Noel Hwang is outstanding, and they are truly believable as a deeply struggling family unit. The first thirty minutes were the strongest of the whole film, but that is at no fault to the rest of the powerful tale.
The title is so deeply fitting as “Riceboy,” Dong-Hyun’s Korean identity, lays dormant for much of his adolescence as he assimilates into Canadian culture. When we cut to David as a teen, he has a 90s style haircut, dyes his hair blonde, dons blue contacts, and dresses the part. This internal struggle leads the sixteen-year-old into experimenting with drugs and very poor behavior. The once helpful and appreciative little boy speaks to his mother with vitriol.
As the family’s health becomes an issue of concern, drastic measures are taken for Dong-Hyun to rediscover himself before it is too late. I do wish the ending of the film had more of a resolution to this imminent danger, but I guess it is left up to the viewer. What could have been a boring story is strengthened by the layered performances of the cast, as well as the multi-faceted characters developed on the page. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.
Riceboy Sleeps overcomes adversity when it premieres at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.