Directed by Anthony Shim, Riceboy Sleeps at first seems to be comparable to the 2020 Minari. Both films start with the premise of the same story, Korean immigrants trying a new life in America, for the first in Canada and in Minari, USA. But as the film develops, you soon realize that the films have different ambitions.
Riceboy Sleeps starts with the tragic story of So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), who saw herself alone at two times in her life, first when she lost her parents, and later when she lost her husband. That’s when she decided to move to Canada with her son, Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang). After her backstory is introduced, the film is divided into three parts, each one presenting a new challenge and the difficulty of belonging and fitting in a new culture.
For the first part of the film, Shim managed to create a beautiful mirror between the mother and the child, interspersing scenes from So-Young and Dong-Hyun, and showing how both face the challenges of immigrating, from both the perspective of the mother in adapting to the language and work, and the child trying to make friends at school even though the other kids are all different from him and make fun of his culture. At the same time, the film doesn’t stick to only this question, but goes deeper in the relationship of the single mother and her child. The film makes explicit the mother’s desire to protect her son, even if this means distancing herself more and more from her culture.
But this mirror is shattered as the film goes on, 10 years later the relationship between both characters has collapsed. That is when the film change directions from the usual story about immigration. While the theme is always there in the background, the mother and son (Ethan Hwang) relationship comes more into focus. Both characters have gone different paths, while the son tries to merge each time more with the Canadian friends and culture, the mother still tries to keep her connections to Korea.
It is nevertheless interesting how the film tries to bring the immigration question in the background, as some small scenes who seem pointless to the story, resonates with those with immigrant background, particularly the scenes involving food. I believe it may feel repetitive all the scenes in which food is involved. But as someone who lives in a different country than the one I was raised in, each scene related to the food had a different meaning, whether it was the yearning for home (in here I would rather use the word “saudade”) or the adaptation and trying to make yourself a new home. Instead of trying to stick to the question of adaptation in a new country, the film decides to confront another side of immigration as well: how to still keep in touch with the culture left behind.
As the film comes into its third and final part, I believe that is when it achieves its magnificence, connecting both themes from before. The film set changes to Korean landscapes as mother and son tries to connect with each other and Don-Hyun tries to understand his past, who he is and where he comes from..
The film presents a touching evolution of the question of belonging, on how to adapt and how to keep in touch. Anthony Shim stirs our emotions in every scene, but ends with a feeling of peace and levity, as the Korean landscapes fill the images.