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SFF 2023: Riceboy Sleeps — a moving portrayal of motherhood and immigration

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here.

How could they do this to me? How am I going to watch the rest of the SFF films? My first film of the 2023 Sydney Film Festival has set the bar so incredibly high I’m afraid that the following films might only stand in its shadow. 

Riceboy Sleeps is a heartwarming, heartbreaking, heartfelt coming of age. Loosely based on Director Anthony Shim’s own experiences, Shim immerses us so perfectly into the Kim family’s story that their emotional journey is felt just as deeply and impactfully by the audience. You can’t help but feel empathetic towards their struggles, The film is filled with pathos, but me being me, I love that. So-young and Dong-Hyun parse their adversity with so much resilience and love that it’s truly inspiring. To see an all-too-familiar rift break out between mother and son was heartbreaking. Perhaps, the thing that makes it all the more agonising is that the rift was borne not only out of adolescent rebelling for freedom but an inability to express their true feelings together, not least due to their cultural divide. Their relationship reminded me of my own relationship with my mum—what it is, what it isn’t, and what I wish it was. 

Riceboy Sleeps is representation as FUCK. I daresay at least one aspect of it will connect to every second-generation Asian who grew up in a Western country. It is so affirming to see our experiences mirrored on the big screen, to know that we weren’t the only ones to have lived that. The passage of time in Riceboy Sleeps uniquely allows us to see So-young and Dong-Hyun’s relationship develop, as Dong-Hyun grows from child to young adult. In both instances, I see so many things that I can relate to, all of which feel somehow redeeming. It was certainly validating to see others around me in the theatre have the same emotional reaction as I did, to find just how universal those experiences may have been, not only for the Asian diaspora but for people from all cultures. 

In the third act of the film, Shim explores Dong-Hyun’s reconnection with Korea, his family and his father. It’s deeply moving, serving as a redemption and recognition of all that he had experienced as a Korean-Canadian child. It’s interspersed with beautiful wide, slow, panning shots of the Korean mountain landscape, contributing to the calm and peaceful tone. It’s also the first time the aspect ratio widens to 16:9. All throughout the scenes set in Canada, the film is shot in 4:3. I think this contrasts the boxed-in nature of Canada for So-Young, the constant stress of working, Dong-Hyun’s education, her frustrations with the inaccessibility of the Canadian system for her. Korea is instead a soothing piece of familiarity, someone far from her stresses, harking back to her own childhood. 

I think the sound design, overseen by Matt Drake, was really effective too. There’s a certain deep rumbling, barely consciously registering, that occurs whenever something stressful or ominous is about to happen, further forcing the audience to step in the shoes of the characters. I was particularly surprised and delighted to find much of the film in Korean with subtitles. I expected the film to be mostly, if not all in English, given the Canadian setting, but was glad to see that So-Young spoke almost exclusively in Korean at home. It was also very nice to see So-Young’s English improve throughout the film, as time progresses and she settles more and more into Canada, even interspersing her Korean with English. To me, it’s these little nuggets of detail that all contribute towards the film’s authentic voice. 

Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s acclaimed 2020 film, also follows a young Korean immigrant family, depicting their struggles both within the family and with their wider American environment. Naturally, many have drawn parallels and comparisons between the two films. However, I don’t think these comparisons do Riceboy Sleeps justice. Although both are Korean immigrant stories that touch on generational divides, Riceboy shows a closer, more intimate exploration of the relationships within the family, and with their connection to Korea. With only two main characters, the film has a lot more freedom to dive deeper into their psyches and allow a stronger and more personal emotional connection from the audience. Furthermore, Minari feels like a story about being torn between Korea and America whereas Riceboy Sleeps feels more like a story of just surviving, and integrating the Korean experience into a Canadian life. 

Riceboy Sleeps is a poignant look into just one Korean immigrant experience. Whilst by no means all-encompassing, it resonated deeply with me, having put into film what words could not about belonging, identity and family. I came out of the film absolutely shattered, in tears. Its quiet, tender moments exude such emotional weight, furthered only by my own connection to its characters. The culmination of two hours of love, joy and sacrifice. Riceboy Sleeps has etched itself deep into my favourite films. It’s provided me with one understanding of parental love, a fresh perspective on embracing one’s identity, a reminder to treasure my relationships, and above all, a beautiful story.