“We didn’t know any better back then, but we do now, so let’s acknowledge those changes,” says Riceboy Sleeps director Anthony Shim. The director is reflecting upon the changes in growing up as a young Korean-Canadian in the 1990s and revisiting that period now through a dramatic lens in Riceboy Sleeps. “I wanted to show those changes between 1990 and ’99, so hopefully we can recognize where we are at today and see how we have different challenges.”
Shim’s second feature as a director, Riceboy Sleeps, deftly transports audiences through the lives of a young Korean-Canadian boy, Dong-hyun (played by Dohyun Noel Hwang in his young years and Umbrella Academy’s Ethan Hwang in his adolescence), as he comes of age in Vancouver under the wing of his mother, So-young (played by newcomer Choi Seung-yoon in a revelatory performance). Riceboy Sleeps observes as the family adjusts to their new life in Vancouver where they mother and son encounter daily acts of overt and casual racism. Dong-Hyun, with his bleached hair and blue contact lenses, finds himself straddling a world he knows and a new one to discover as he matures with a push-and-pull relationship with his Korean roots. This tension manifests itself in a turbulent relationship with his selfless mother, and outright hostility to So-young’s boyfriend, Simon (played by Shim). However, the growing pains that Dong-hyun experiences are both specific and universal in a world where fitting in never comes easily.
“The challenges that Dong-hyun has with his mother aren’t that different from the challenges he has his peers or his teachers,” says Shim. “Or that his mother has with people at work or even in her relationship with Simon.” Deftly constructed in three acts that show Dong-Hyun’s childhood, adolescence, and the family’s return to Korea, Riceboy Sleeps is a strikingly intimate work that draws inspiration from Shim’s own life and relationships.
The film has a great heart as the bond between Dong-hyun and So-young remains unshakably strong as they learn what it means to forge a new life in a strange environment. The camera is constantly on the move as one explores the characters’ unfamiliar surroundings, and Shim puts a refreshing spin on the coming of age tale that heralds an assured new voice behind the camera.
That Shelf caught up with Shim and Riceboy Sleeps star Choi Seung-yoon ahead of the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which it screens in the festival’s Platform competition devoted to auteur cinema. The film will be travelling the circuit with stops at Vancouver and Calgary, among other festivals, marking it as one of the Canadian films of note this season.
Anthony, what inspired you to look back at this period of your childhood through a new lens?
AS: It was about wanting to make a film about the immigrant experience for Korean-Canadians or Korean-Americans in the way that I experienced it. I hadn’t seen that yet, whether it be TV or film. The second part of your question would be that I wanted to make it as personal as I could. It’s hard to make a film about your childhood or a coming of age film still be original because there’s been so many. Let’s forget about The 400 Blows of the world, Taika Waititi’s Boy, and so many other great examples to just make my story of this specific community in this place in time.
What did you like about So-young as a character, Seung-yoon? How did you and Anthony connect?
CS: It happened so naturally. It was like an accident for me. I didn’t intend to have an acting career before this job, but somehow I got the opportunity to audition for this film. At the very beginning, I was so afraid somehow and thought that I could not do it, or that I should reject this offer. At the same time, I could not reject it because So-young is such a strong woman. She’s so brave. She so aware of her choices at every moment
AS: It’s not like I just decided from the beginning to go to Korea and find our cast. We started locally and then worked our way out. We put out a North America-wide search for this role, as well as the two other boys. All of them were difficult to cast, largely due to the look, the age, and the language ability, which was so specific. I was lucky enough to meet a casting director in Korea while I was here location scouting. She had met Yoon by chance recently, so she said, “I’ve got a wild card for you. I know this dancer—she’s starting to get into acting, but I think there’s something about her that is just so right for this part. Would you want to meet her?” Of course, I did, and the rest is history.
What were you looking for in your actors when you were casting the parts for So-young and Dong-Hyun?
AS: I was mostly looking for an openness, an ease of vulnerability. It was hard back then when I was trying to explain to casting directors and producers what I was looking for, but when I met Yoon and when I met Ethan and Noel, it was the same thing. I can usually see from looking at a picture of a person if they’re right for the part. Maybe it’s the eyes; maybe it is something about their face or the aura that they give off. It’s that intangible thing that you notice about a person and you just know it in your gut.
How does the story intersect with your own life, Anthony? I read that your father passed when you were younger, but why did you shift to the character to be the mother?
AS: Dong-hyun also does not have a father: he passed away, so that part is semi-autobiographical. There’s a lot that I had to change for the purposes of dramatization, but what’s most autobiographical is the emotional journey of these characters. Less so the specifics of what exactly happened and the plot of it all. For what happens with the mother, it was more about showing a sense heartbreak, her inability to find love again and to move on with her life, live for herself, and make amends with her own history and her country.
What is your family like, Yoon? How do you relate to So-young?
CS: My family in real life is a normal, happy family. I was trying to find a common theme between So-young and myself, but we actually don’t have anything in common. Somehow, I could feel sympathetic and found that I could resonate with her choices.
AS: Her ability to experience the world, her relationship with her own self-identity, and her emotional state were so close to the character. I think that’s why she was able to resonate. Ultimately, the most important thing is for an actor to have empathy for the character and to have compassion for the people in the story. Everything else is hair, makeup and costumes.
On that note, you I didn’t recognize you at all as Simon, Anthony! [Quite literally.] How was it playing on both sides of the camera?
AS: I didn’t plan to play Simon, but our casting director said, “If this wasn’t your film, you would be the person we offer this part to.” I knew I was right for the part because I knew where it came from in me and that I could play it. Since I was going to be part of those rehearsals anyway as a director, I thought I might as well step in. It wasn’t such a stretch from my role as a director in terms of the dynamic with Yoon and Ethan. I don’t really plan to do it again. Some days I didn’t feel like I was able to be fully present for the other actors or my crew.
You really get a sense of the relationships building in the three acts of the film. Did you shoot everything sequentially?
AS: That would have been the dream, but because of the locations we had, it was impossible for us to do so. It was such a tight schedule. We had 15 days to shoot all of the Vancouver scenes and we had four days to shoot in Korea. There were days where Yoon had to play both So-young in 1990 and So-young in ’99 and do a quick hair and makeup change during lunch. We tried to lump it so that, for example, we would do the kids for a full day or two and then switch, but it did go back and forth.
CS: But the important thing is that the Korean part was at the end.
AS: That was important. We had to shoot that at the very end for multiple reasons.
There’s such a different tone and tempo for the act in Korea. What was sort of your guiding aesthetic for the Korean scenes?
AS: We tried to make it feel like two different places within the same world of this film.
CS: But the whole environment in Korea, the countryside, gives you so much space.
AS: The aspect ratio really was a part of it. I wanted everything to feel very tight and cramped and confined between the subject and the camera. Once we got to Korea, I wanted it to feel like the audience, along with the characters, can take a big breath.
That’s what I felt. There’s a great sense of the characters growing and a sense of release. But it also looks so beautiful because you shot on film. Why was it important to do 16mm for Riceboy Sleeps?
AS: I have a love for celluloid, but for this film in particular, I’d looked at different examples of films that were set in different periods, particularly the ’90s and things that were shot digitally and shot on 16mm or 35mm. I liked the look of 16 best. It just gave us that undeniable sense of that time and place. There’s a texture and a depth to the colours as well that I thought worked really nicely. I wanted to see Korea in those colours and with that grain.
There’s also such a great sense of motion. The camera’s always moving in Riceboy Sleeps and we’re getting so many different views of the house. Even that scene where Dong-hyun and his mother are in the car and are having the fight about adopting a western name, like Michael Jackson or David, and there’s that Children of Men shot where the camera goes from the front to the back.
AS: It’s funny – I actually watched Children of Men as a visual reference and as inspiration for camera movements. That film just does it so well. When Chris Lew, our DP, and I were looking at working together on this film, we first had to agree on the camera’s perspective, or what the POV of the camera is. We both felt like it’s not the POV of the characters. We described it as the POV of the deceased father. We said, “If you were dead and you could watch over the people you love, where would you watch them from?” That was the idea in terms of where we placed the camera.
So for one scene, I’d be further back. For another, I’d be right up close, and then in that moment I would just let the characters go and give them their space, or I would follow them immediately, or I’d run with them. We had to think about it from an emotional place so that the camera had its own emotional life within the story that motivated its movement. Even when the camera’s not moving, there is a sense of movement.
Was it a challenge to do such a technically sophisticated shoot with the younger actors?
AS: We rehearsed a lot because many of the takes are long. A lot of the scenes were done in one take and we didn’t shoot coverage. Even for Noel, our little one, I told him, “I’m not cutting, so we need to have this scene run from beginning to end.” We rehearsed a lot.
CS: Anthony gave us a lot of time to make real relationships together. I hung out with Noel and we had some donuts and spent a lot of time together. That’s why we felt so comfortable with each other during shooting. It was hard [with the long takes]. It was like a live performance. For example, there are long scene about like when Dong-hyun and I were fighting during breakfast: it was almost four or five minutes. I had a lot of dialogue and, at the beginning. I did a good job, but as time went on, I felt really nervous because I knew that if I made a mistake, then we can’t use the take.
AS: The part that I thought would be the hardest part actually turned out to be one of the best parts. It allowed everyone to be engaged and part of the experience. Everyone knew what was at stake and what we were trying to accomplish. We didn’t have a backup plan or a safety net. Everyone wanted to see the actors, but we all succeed in these day-to-day challenges.
From telling with story with Noel and Ethan, do you think young kids have it easier today or harder than we had it growing up in the 1990s?
AS: It’s hard to say, because I haven’t experienced this version [of adolescence], but I do feel like kids must have it a little harder. When it comes to being different racially or if your parents have a language barrier, of course it’s difficult at any point. But to be bullied, or to be called names, or to have physical altercations is hard, but the difference when I grew up is that it was immediate and it was direct. If there’s an issue, I felt I could respond to it immediately in the moment face to face, and I had to deal with the emotional, physical, and psychological repercussions of my reaction. My parents could then respond accordingly. There was communication and they were engaged.
But for today, it just seems that with the infinite ways that young people are able to communicate for the better and for the worse, I think they feel more pressure because it’s also digital, it’s happening around them all the time
In terms of taking us back to the 1990s, I have to ask: Where on earth did you get that wallpaper for their house? Because whoever did the art direction…
AS: Oh, that came with the house! [Laughs.] The carpet came with the house, too. That was not an easy house to get, but we walked in and both our production designer and DP were like, “This is just too good. We need to use all of this.” The red carpet, the mustard yellow carpet, and we have that pirate ship wallpaper in the boy’s bedroom, which is just so good. It’s what we would have put up if we decorated a blank wall, but that house hasn’t changed since the ’90s. [Laughs.]