Riceboy Sleeps review — An essential Canadian story of the struggle to be Canadian

Written and Directed by Anthony Shim | 117 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Crave

It’s 1990. A young woman, So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), has come to Canada from South Korea, following the suicide of her husband, with her son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang), who’s just going into Grade One. You really feel for the kid — the only Asian boy in a class full of white children, he’s teased and bullied. So-Young’s parenting includes telling him as a man he can only cry three times in his life — when he’s born, when his father dies, and when his mother dies. She urges him to defend himself if he’s being teased, which leads to trouble in the schoolyard and meetings with the school principal.

This first act of the movie lays out what feels like an entirely honest depiction of both the intended and unintended racism baked into the system and the manifold complexities of assimilation. As Canadians we’re polite to the point of smugness, which this picture understands, but the way it gets into the lack of comprehension across cultures is heartbreaking.

In the second act we shoot forward about a decade to when Dong-Hyun, now going by the name David (Ethan Hwang), is a teenager. He puts coloured contacts in his eyes and dyes his hair blonde, clearly in an effort to obscure his ethnicity. He’s got friends and likes to party with them, but is at odds with his mother who’s still single and still working at the same factory job to support them, though she’s now got a possible romantic prospect, a man named Simon (played by the director, Shim). A crisis prompts her to go back to Korea to reconnect with relatives, bringing David along, leading to the final act.

Riceboy Sleeps shares common themes with the recent Brother — the immigrant experience in Canada in the 1990s, a single mother supporting a family — and this film is just as well made, just as essential, though it may be even more impressive given it’s from a first-time filmmaker.

Tonally, Shim is shining a different kind of light on his story, informed by the lovely restlessness of his camera, which prowls into rooms and around his actors eschewing coverage, as well as the wash of sound from the score, bringing a dreamy quality to the proceedings. You could even say it has a softness, a nostalgia to it, despite the many difficulties faced by the characters. As So-young, Choi Seung-yoon does a great job showing her character’s strength but also her startling rigidity.

This is an excellent film. With this and the recent I Like Movies, we’re seeing the next generation of Canadian filmmakers arrive fully fledged. It feels damn promising.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.