We are with mother So-Young and her son Dong-Hyun right from the beginning, immigrants and a single parent household their film quietly observes the challenges they face and the resilience they display placing the audience immediately in their corner.
Particularly So-Young, who we see consistently project strength even when we know she is hurting. Based on writer-director-producer-editor Anthony Shim’s childhood, the story covers two distinct eras, when Dong-Hyun begins going to school in Vancouver and as a young teenager when he makes a reckoning with the world he is growing up in and wanting to find out about the world he came from. So-Young will face a more pressing discovery and have to deal with a larger reckoning.
Canada here is shot in a different ratio, things seem small and local, dimly lit, cold and bleak. When Korea is shown it is expansive, bright, full of sunshine and beautiful nature. This is done to show how colourless, immediate, and small a place can be to a newcomer. Yet the house this little family lives in seems a good size and warmly lit, a sanctuary from the outside world.
There are long, unbroken takes with minimal movement, creating a sense of being present in the room without drawing attention to it. Scenes unfold organically with performances that are natural but emotional when needed. Ethan Hwang as teenage Dong-Hyun conveys all the volatility of adolescence, but you can see, as he strives to assert himself, his good heart is always shining through.
However, the movie belongs to Choi Seung-yoon who is called upon to convey every conceivable emotion but often with restraint. So-Young is always considering her choices before committing, knowing that the consequences are real not just for herself but for her son.
There is a scene in ‘Riceboy Sleeps’ when a story is laid out for the audience. You can see the beats coming and the ending is implicit in the narrative. The music swells, the camera slowly zooms in closer on the actors who are becoming teary eyed.
The techniques employed are so often used that they have become cliché.
Not here though, because the story connects so perfectly to the themes of the film, because the audience have become so invested in the plight of these characters and care about them deeply.
This scene proves transcendent and that is down mostly to the work of Anthony Shim and Choi Seung-yoon.
We don’t often get stories about mothers and sons – here is one of the best.