7 Feb 2024

Review: Riceboy Sleeps

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 7 February 2024

On the surface Riceboy Sleeps seems to be another story we’ve heard many times before – the coming-of-age movie, a young boy with a solo parent. But like all potentially routine scripts, it’s the detail that lifts it. 

This is the story of a young Korean mother – So-Young – who after a series of misfortunes, takes off with her baby son to seek her fortune in Vancouver, Canada.

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Photo: Screenshot

Considering how small the Korean community is in Canada, it’s interesting that Riceboy Sleeps should come out at around the same time as another Canadian-Korean gem, Past lives.

We meet So-Young and 5-year-old Dong-Hyun on the boy’s first day at a Canadian primary school. 

The usual first-day nightmare is amplified by his being the only Asian at the school, and therefore an easy target.

Tiger mother So-Young’s advice proves disastrously counter-productive. Hit back, she suggests. Which means both she and the boy are dragged off to the principal’s office.

It’s soon clear that the best thing to learn for both mother and son is how to fit into monocultural Vancouver. 

In Canada, most young immigrants are encouraged to take a bland, Canadian name – like Kevin, or Stanley, or David.

Dong-Hyun is fine with that. He picks “Michael Jordan” and refuses to back down.

In Act Two of Riceboy Sleeps, an older Dong-Hyun, now “David” at his new school, is fitting in a lot better nine years on. There are certainly a lot more Asians than when he was picked on for eating rice at lunchtime.

And he’s becoming more interested in his Korean past. Why does his mother resist talking about his late father, he wonders?

Riceboy Sleeps has been cunningly structured by writer-director Anthony Shim. We already know rather more than David about why So-Young felt she couldn’t stay in Korea.   

David is frustrated by her silence. He’s trying to do a school project about his family history – a history his mother isn’t ready to share.

So-Young is making a new life for herself in Canada – including romance with another Canadian Korean, her nice boss Simon, played by Anthony Shem himself.

The couple are drawn together not just by their Korean background, but by the fact that they were both adopted as children.

There are fascinating parallels and differences between the would-be couple. Both were orphaned, though Simon’s adoption experience was rather more positive than So-Young’s.

Simon feels himself entirely Canadian, while So-Young is starting to be drawn back to her youth in Korea, even if it was far from ideal.

So finally in Act Three, So-Young is driven to make a decision - to take David back to Korea to find his roots and confront some unexpected family ghosts.

I can’t really say much more. Like last week’s Japanese bonsai marvel Perfect Days and two other recent East Asian gems Past Lives and Minari, you may have to take my word for what a delight Riceboy Sleeps is.  

Its strength is the three leads – not just the actress playing the mother and the two kids playing the boy, but the characters themselves. 

They’re believable because they’re so specific, but they’re universal because you get them, you like them, and want what they want.

It rests entirely on a well-worn idea – you need to know your past before you can make sense of your future. And it does it without sounding remotely preachy. Strongly recommended in other words.

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