Identity cuts sharply and deeply into what it means to be human.
This foundational truth is on affectingly thoughtful display throughout Anthony Shim’s 1990s-set Riceboy Sleeps, which tells the story of So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), a single mother from South Korea who emigrates to Canada, and specifically Vancouver, in a bid to give her son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang as a child, Ethan Hwang as a teenager) a chance at a better life.
Denied citizenship in South Korea because he was born out of wedlock, Dong-Hyun, also known as David after the school he begins attending in 1990 as a six-year-old thinks it’s better to give a Western first name – this piece of cultural-wiping low-key bigotry, alas, doesn’t save Dong-Hyun from being subjected to incessant, racially-driven bullying which, in part, informs the title – is caught, as so many immigrant kids are, between the culture of his parent and that of the world around him.
A semi-autobiographical film which is partly based on the experiences of writer and director Andrew Shim’s own childhood (he also plays So-Young’s later love interest Simon, a Korean child adopted into a white Canadian family), Riceboy Sleeps is one of those stories which inherently understands that identity is not a simple case of switching some internal on and off mechanism to fit the situation.
In a sense that’s what Dong-Hyun has to do – at school he has to be just like the other kids, even going so far as to dump his Korean food in the toilet bin and beg his mum for the same stuff as his classmates are eating, while at home, So-Young cooks only Korean food, her identity firmly rooted in the country she had to leave behind after some personal tragedy.
While mother and child are close in 1990, there is a burbling schism at play as Dong-hyun moves increasingly into the orbit of his classmates and his mother stays close to her work friend and fellow Korean immigrant Mi-sun (Jerina Son) and so, by 1999, when Dong-Hyun is 15, the two are not really really on the same page culturally or emotionally.
That’s a common theme for parents and teenagers everywhere really but there is extra weight attached to it for So-Young and Dong-Hyun because of a lingering void in both their lives, which propelled the mother to leave South Korea behind and leaves the son feeling listless and incomplete, one half of his parental background cloaked in mystery.
So-young can’t talk about what happened to her onetime partner because she is still wrapped in an impenetrable layer of grief, and while that serves her well – not really because it leaves her somewhat emotionally shut down which does neither her nor her son any favours – it means that Dong-Hyun feels like part of his identity has been hacked away, a simmering issue which is brought to life by a class project where he has to detail his family tree and what it’s taught him.
No surprise then that the young man struggles with the assignment, his frustration growing all the more pronounced as So-Young finds herself unable to revisit a very painful time in her life, shutting down every time her son so much as broaches the subject of his dad.
There is constant back and forth on a missing part of Dong-Hyun’s identity emphasises the young man’s overall sense of dislocation; while he is now a member of a tight circle of friends and all but Canadian is every way that matters to him, he feels divorced from his Koreanness which is inextricably linked to the father he doesn’t know and with whom he likely will never become familiar.
But then a huge twist occurs, one with potentially lifechanging import especially for So-Young, triggering a journey back to South Korea where Dong-Hyun belatedly meets his grandfather and grandmother (Jong-ryol Choi and Yong-nyeo Lee respectively) and uncle In-Shik (Kang In Sung).
This forging of bonds with the missing part of his identity not only allows Dong-Hyun to come to grips more fully with whom he is as an emerging adult but also allows So-Young to heal from some deep personal pain which in turn draws mother and son even closer together.
A nuanced and quietly slow-moving film which uses long takes to match the thoughtfulness of a very interior film, Riceboy Sleeps is a gem of film, its story simply and carefully told without massive bells and whistles, content to let its raw humanity speak for itself.
By focusing on the story and letting it play out without dramatic leaps and bounds – even when big things happen, they play out against the quiet banality of ordinary, everyday life – Riceboy Sleeps retains a real power and truthfulness about identity and how easily it can be muddied and restored.
That really is the central issue at play here and a key to the film’s universality – by keeping things simple and unadorned, not only does the emotional power of the story make its mark but people are able to project their own stories onto it, making it all the more accessible for a wide range of people.
And even if you haven’t had to grapple with the thorny issue of who you are if you’re caught between two cultural worlds and unable to fully traverse either, audiences can find much with which to identity simply by considering core issues of identity and belonging.
Riceboy Sleeps is at its thoughtfully nuanced and quietly alive heart, a film that knows how important it is for us to know ourselves in every respect of who we are, and how trauma and loss can affect that and leave us adrift, half-formed and only partly-known and why the sealing of that void and any healing can take place is so important.
By movie’s end, not all the problems are solved nor narrative dangling threads neatly wound up – they can’t be; Riceboy Sleeps reflects life in all its agony and beauty and life is rarely that convenient or tidy – but there is a sense that both Dong-Hyun and So-Young have found some measure of a peace and a way forward for whatever journey awaits them in the future.