RICEBOY SLEEPS: 3 STARS. “a portrayal of isolation and frustration.”
“Riceboy Sleeps,” a new drama from Vancouver director Anthony Shim, and now playing in theatres, is a meditative study in the immigrant experience in Canada through the lens of a mother and son relationship.
Set in the 1990s, Choi Seung-yoon is So-young, a single-mother to Dong-Hyun (as a child played by Dohyun Noel Hwang, later, as a teen by Ethan Hwang), who moved to Canada from Korea following the death of her husband. Once in Canada, the better life she hoped for seems just out of reach.
At her factory job So-young faces discrimination and, at school Dong-hyun is teased because his lunches are different than the sandwiches everyone has in their lunch boxes. His teacher even anglicizes his name to David because she can’t properly pronounce Dong-hyun.
Life isn’t easy for them. Dong-hyun, who, trying to assimilate to his new home, dyes his hair blonde and wears blue contacts, is suspended from school for fighting, and turns to drugs.
Gradually mother and son drift apart, but when So-young receives life-changing news, they attempt to reconnect with one another and with their heritage on a trip to Korea.
“Riceboy Sleeps” occasionally dips into melodrama, but is remarkably effective in its portrayal of the isolation and frustration that envelopes So-young and Dong-hyun’s new life. It’s in the details, the small (and sometimes not so small) behaviors, that define their interactions with many co-workers, doctors and even Dong-hyun’s teachers. Director Shim smartly visualizes the cultural claustrophobia with a boxy aspect ratio that doesn’t open up until the Korean sequences.
The natural performances are particularly effective in the film’s intimate moments. A scene where So-young struggles to use a Korean-English dictionary understand her cancer diagnosis is as frustrating and tragic as it is heartbreaking.
Ultimately, it is the film’s central relationship, the mother/son bond, that gives “Riceboy Sleeps” its poignancy.