Winner of the Platform Prize at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Riceboy Sleeps is a piercing vision of the immigrant experience. Writer/director Anthony Shim (in only his second feature film) creates a riveting account of life as an outsider, of individuals who strive for a better life but who must fight against sometimes insurmountable odds. Riceboy Sleeps may be a quiet, poetic film but its emotional impact is thoroughly spellbinding.
In the film, Shim deftly conveys a larger message about belonging that is highly relatable, one that speaks to humanity’s basic need for connection. These characters may experience hardship and loneliness in a foreign land but that recognizable urge to band together is particularly striking here.
Inspired in part on Shim’s own childhood, the film easily glides through roughly a decade in the life of Korean-immigrant single mother, So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon,) and her young son as they adjust to life in Canada. As he grows into a teenager, Dong-hyun (Ethan Hwang) begins to ask more pressing questions about his father and his homeland.
Shim sets his film in the 1990s, which so vividly brings the casual racism they must endure into sharp focus. Navigating school as a non-white student, Dong-hyun endures a blatant degree of discrimination as he is repeatedly bullied. The experience of the film is far enough in the past to give us critical distance, but close enough to be familiar.
It’s dazzling how much is conveyed through Shim’s brilliant formal strategy, which draws us into the world of his characters in an effortless manner. With the roving camera style, his use of long takes tends to enclose his actors. This cleverly creates a sense of both the isolation that they feel and the comforting environment that they have created for themselves.
Add to this the precision of each edit, so perfectly timed to create a rhythm that draws one right into their world. The performances are note perfect with an especially brilliant performance by Choi Seung-yoon as So-young. The cumulative result is sheer poetry.
A deep-rooted longing at the core of Riceboy Sleeps makes it unforgettable. It is one of those achingly beautiful films that will stay with you long after it’s over. The film was a highlight of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, and it is easily one of the best films of the year.