The Canadian-Korean film, Riceboy Sleeps, opens with a vast and dreamy scene of mountains extending into the distance beneath a shimmery sky and muted sun that could be over either country. A voiceover reveals the story of Seung-yoon, a Korean orphan who forged her own independence, fell in love with a man who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed suicide, leading her to immigrate to Canada with their stateless (because he was born out of wedlock) son, Dong-hyun.
In 1990s Canada, both face the casual racism of the times, she as a factory worker (with the additional insult of sexism) and he as a first-grader. At school, where the other children tauntingly call him Riceboy due to his mother’s version of a packed lunch, his well-intentioned teacher suggests he take on a new name.
Seung-yoon is fierce, and teaches (the renamed) David to be fierce, too, but as he shambles into adolescence he shifts from the country of mom-and-me to the geography of identity and of origin.
Director Anthony Shim draws on his own childhood to convey a tender portrayal of immigration through the prism of a tiny family trying to anchor itself in a new country. There are echoes of the mythic, too, as So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon, grave and moving) confronts her own impending tragedy. She recounts to a suitor (played by Shim) a Korean legend about death, a mother’s love, and a mountain.
Scenes in Riceboy Sleeps have gripping immediacy: the crunchy swoosh of gravel as children dash around a playground, the dubious pot-brownie milkshake whirred in a blender and hesitantly imbibed. These moments feel lived.
But often, the camera work seems a little too emphatic for its own good, orbiting scenes like a rookie referee, a style that can create distance rather than engagement. However, these are quibbling distractions from the soft and generous arc of the film, which travels far in the landscape of familial consolation.
In cinemas now