There comes a time in many lives when a kind of matter transference takes place in the relationship between parent and child. Like a sudden change of filter or aspect ratio, we see our mothers and fathers in new ways, realizing they existed before we did, thought thoughts and felt feelings entirely separate from our own. Almost always, it’s a flower of understanding that blossoms just a bit later than we would like and when it does, it asks of us an impossible question: what to do with this new knowledge, this strange flood of retrospective awe? Perhaps, when you’re far on the other side, looking back through the reverse end of time’s telescope, and if you’re Canadian director Anthony Shim, you make a film like “Riceboy Sleeps,” a familiar immigrant song sung in such an elegant, sincere voice that it feels like a whole new arrangement.
There’s a drifting, dreamed quality to Shim’s movie, which has been quietly collecting plaudits since its premiere in Toronto (where it won the Platform Prize). It’s a mood established right from the storybook beginning, when, over hazy sea- and mountain-scapes, a Korean voiceover tells of an orphan, abandoned as a baby at a temple, who grew into a strong young woman, who fell in love with a rice-farmer’s son. They had a few happy years before his mental health declined and he committed suicide. Alone, unmarried with a newborn, the woman left the judgments and regrets of the past in Korea, and moved to suburban Canada, a milieu introduced to us in a low, thrilling, gliding shot of her son, Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang), as a little boy, running across a green field, a satchel on his back. It is 1990, and it is Dong-hyun’s first day of school.
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At school, the teacher will mispronounce his name, and the other kids will make fun of the foreignness of his lovingly prepared lunch. And it is not only truculent, bespectacled Dong-hyun who will endure such micro- and macro-aggressions. His mother, So-young (Choi Seung-yoon), after berating herself gently for crying in the car outside the school, goes to work at a drab factory assembly line, where she is largely ostracized, save for the burly male colleagues who slap her behind as they pass. So-young’s response, her quite justified but unexpectedly vocal indignance, only alienates her further. While Dong-hyun finds an empty school corridor where he can shamefacedly throw his seaweed rice rolls in the trash, So-young eats her meal alone at a table separate from her chattering co-workers.
It’s only the first of the many unforced, imperfect echoes that happen across the film’s expansive runtime, as though Shim is finding, from this far-off perspective, synchronicities that the characters themselves cannot be aware of. These resonances live, like so much of the film’s artfulness, in the graceful movement and constant, subtle reframing of Christopher Lew’s exemplary photography, which avoids overt manipulation and excessive cutting and instead allows conversations to play out in single, wide frames, and finds close-ups on the fly, as though the camera, too, were rootless.
After a clever ellipsis that happens between Dong-hyun as a kid futzing with his big owl-eye glasses and Dong-hyun (now Ethan Hwang) as a surly bleach-blond teenager putting in his blue contacts, the mother/son echoes become all the more poignant for the distance that has sprung up between them. While So-young, having just received the worst of all possible news, sways drunkenly in the embrace of her new Canadian-Korean beau (played by Shim himself), Dong-hyun staggers home bleeding after a fight at a party, but the way they are framed makes it all one mood. Time and again, this is how Shim gets around the dramatic difficulty of communicating the connection between such inherently undemonstrative, reserved characters. The camera, and Andrew Yong Hoon Lee’s minimal but gradually swelling score, express the emotions that mother and son hold so deliberately in check.
The beats of the immigrant drama — the new friendships and small triumphs of assimilation, as well as the humiliations and miscommunication of cultural otherness — are all here. So-young builds a sturdy life for herself and her son, that has all they could need, except perhaps an acknowledgement of where they came from. So when, in the final third, the vista changes as So-young and Dong-hyun go on a visit to Korea, it’s a resolve that is hardly unexpected but satisfies nonetheless, as though the film were finally taking a deep, freeing breath. “Riceboy Sleeps” is sedate and respectful and hardly reinvents the immigrant drama wheel. But in its soulful, expertly crafted simplicity it does ring with the sincerest and most moving of sentiments that a grown-up child could express to a beloved parent: I remember it all, and thank you.
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