The beauty of “Riceboy Sleeps” is that writer / director Anthony Shim‘s touching tearjerker about an immigrant family really captures and conveys the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. The film gracefully expresses not only the sense of being an outsider, but tells the story in a way that all audiences can understand, making it easier for viewers to relate to the immigrant experience in a mostly white country.
Set in the 1990s, the film tells the story of South Korean single mother So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon) and her son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang, Ethan Hwang) as they struggle with their new life in Canada. The pair are individually disrespected at work and bullied at school, where they face racism, sexist comments, and mocking. Dong-Hyun and So-Young deal with the emotional trauma by taking care of each other but as the young boy matures into a teenager and his assimilation into a new culture is complete, the divide between mother and son grows.
Now that he is getting older, So-Young begins to grapple with her son losing a major part of his identity, and decides they need to take a trip to visit his homeland so he remembers where he came from. This journey forces them both to confront ghosts of the past and present, and neither will ever be the same again.
The film is told in two parts that reflect on the phases of the boy’s life; first, when Dong-Hyun is a first grader and second, when he is a high schooler. It’s a narrative that offers two varying perspectives on life in Canada, as the boy quickly adjusts while his mother lives a life of sacrifice and isolation. The story never shies away from the realities immigrants and single mothers face, and paints an accurate picture of how it feels to be an outsider at school, work, and in society.
The story slows a bit when the pair travel to South Korea and a tangled family history is revealed, but the writing is honest and is elevated by the stirring performances from the cast. This is a heartfelt film from start to finish, and “Riceboy Sleeps” is a tender and tragic tale of love, understanding, and compassion not only between a mother and her son, but as reflection within their individual selves.