Movie Review: Riceboy Sleeps offers a poignant take on immigrant families

Riceboy Sleeps, a 117-minute long film, is fully shot on 16mm which adds to its nostalgia for the plot set in the 90s.

Avier Tan

| May 9, 2023
HallyuSG - Riceboy Sleeps
Choi Seung-yoon and Ethan Hwang in a still for Riceboy Sleeps. Photo: The Projector

Warning: This movie review contains spoilers.

Most films today are shot digitally. But director Antony Shim doesn’t want that for his latest movie, Riceboy Sleeps (2023).

Instead, he was adamant on shooting the 117-minute long film on 16mm. And for good reason. The grainy aesthetic evokes a sense of nostalgia for the plot set in the 90s.

Riceboy Sleeps follows widow So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) and her son Kim Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) as Korean immigrants in Canada. They are headed there in search of a better life after her husband’s passing.

HallyuSG - Riceboy Sleeps
Dohyun Noel Hwang plays Kim Dong-hyun as a child. Photo: The Projector

The film opens with Kim’s first day of preschool, where he’s faced with discrimination from his peers. They tease him for eating homemade kimbap and poke fun at him for his Asian eyes.

Such is the life of young Kim.

Following his mother’s instructions, he stands up for himself and fights back — before the school suspended him for a week. While his perpetrators get away scot-free without proper investigation from the school.

Back home, he is a sweet, but at times persistent, boy with a temperament of his own.

He’d help his mother clean the table after dinner, add sugar while she makes kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish made from fermented cabbage, radish.

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Dohyun Noel Hwang and Choi Seung-yoon in a still for Riceboy Sleeps. Photo: The Projector

Throughout the film, the cast speaks a mix of Korean and English. Kim, as a reserved and shy kid, mostly spoke Korean at home.

Fast forward a few years, Kim is a whole different person in his teenage years. It’s probably due to his company in school – but he mostly responded to his mother at home in English, instead of his mother tongue.

His blonde hairdo served as a foreshadowing of his teenage defiance. That’s not all: there’s quite a fair bit going on in the later part of the film.

Kim’s teenage rebellion is dotted with drug abuses, violence, brushes with bad influence. It was accompanied by the introduction of Simon.

Simon is the suitor of his mother So-young, played by the director himself, Anthony Shim. His appearance was timely to put more focus on So-young, who later discovered that she had contracted terminal illness.

Anthony Shim and Choi Seung-yoon in a still for Riceboy Sleeps. Photo: The Projector

But it’s a pity that the film did not address her condition thereafter. And that twist didn’t seem quite significant, other than it helped bend the dynamic between the mother-and-son pair slightly.

Along the way, the director introduces various snippets of Korean culture to the audience – starting from Korean food. He also brought in some Korean traditions – like how one should use two hands to serve soju and to look away when consuming it, as an act of courtesy.

They later went back to Korea to look for Kim’s grandparents. The trip offered him a chance to visit his dad, whom his mother has been hesitant to talk about since the start. 

Call it a trip of introspection for Kim.

It does seem to me that he’s more down-to-earth after learning about his heritage, alongside a fresh cut that could likely hint at picking himself up again after where he left off, for new beginnings.

Riceboy Sleeps is now screening at The Projector.


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