starring Choi Seung-yoon, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Ethan Hwang
written and directed by Anthony Shim
by Walter Chaw Anthony Shim's emotionally lacerating memoir-cum-melodrama is an intimately observed cultural piece molded around a Mildred Pierce framework. There's nothing it doesn't do reasonably well, even switching aspect ratios to reflect expanding consciousness and experience in a way that's useful rather than simply distracting, yet there's a certain tidiness to it all that makes it feel calculated. I think it ultimately fails to do what it most wants to do, that is, express the fullness of the immigrant experience as one based as much on hopeful aspiration as on struggle and generational trauma. I got the sad part to the extent the film is willing to go there in an honest way. The other part? Not so much. Maybe moments of connection and love would clash with the typical blue stateliness that defines the Canadian film industry: self-seriousness undermined by the picture's slavishness to prestige formula. One part defiant individualism, one part obvious insecurity. Or maybe there isn't a non-traumatic aspect to immigration and the challenges of assimilation, and Riceboy Sleeps is acknowledgment that life for perpetual aliens is just unrelieved--indeed, unrelievable--pain. I think, really, the problem with Riceboy Sleeps is that it arrives after watermarks like Minari, Columbus, Spa Night, Driveways, The Farewell, and Everything Everywhere All at Once--films that provide a fuller portrait of the Asian-American experience while also covering the key trigger points this one covers. If it were the first rather than the latest, it would be closer to revelation than to parody.
So-Young (Choi Seung Yoon) is a single mother raising her boy, Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang as a child, Ethan Hwang as a moody teen), while holding down a factory job. Dong-Hyun is bullied for his weird, stinking lunches and his name, which a well-meaning elementary school teacher helps anglicize as "David." So-Young (her name also her character description) tells David that men are only allowed to cry three times in their life: when they're born and upon the death of each of their parents--and then she tells him to threaten his bullies with "taekwondo" before hitting them. This advice leads to his suspension from school, giving So-Young the opportunity to rail against the sting of perceived racism. I think the charge would land with more weight if David and his tormentors were older (they appear to be around six or seven), or if they'd been beating him up rather than just being the usual, run-of-the-mill twats little kids tend to be--but a scene of So-Young asserting herself in this way is as rotely necessary as one at the factory where she objects to a coworker slapping her on the ass. She's a modern woman, you see, tough as nails and outspoken about her rights and the rights of her son. She's a fighter who, in a couple of flashbacks, is revealed to have been widowed by a suicidal ex-soldier. I thought Riceboy Sleeps would deal with the fallout from David's violent and progressive alienation; or his divorce from his mother's culture and the painful consequences of that; or even his mother's struggle to find childcare for him in the hopes of keeping her job in a capitalist system entirely disinterested in the well-being of its workforce. Instead, the film skips forward several years to David's gloomy adolescence, where he gets high and does shrooms with his idiot buddies, gets into fights occasionally, and doesn't appreciate what So-Young has sacrificed for his depression and self-medicated disconnection.
For all her protests to the contrary, So-Young is never anything other than a victim. She's widowed, her dead husband's family shuns her, she's forced into menial work in a strange country that hates her, and her son grows up without a strong sense of self, taught to be ashamed of his emotions and to express himself primarily if not exclusively through sullen hostility and violence. A bad medical diagnosis plunges Riceboy Sleeps into mawkishness for its third act, returning So-Young and David to South Korea, where they enjoy an awkward reunion with her in-laws and David tearfully dons his dad's military jacket and crewcut along with his responsibility to his mother and their legacy. But their legacy as what? Subsistence farmers strangled by tradition and mental illness? That's fine if that were the case, but I fear Riceboy Sleeps has uplift on its mind. So-Young's illness is the screen-friendly kind of wasting away; David's redemption upon revisiting the home country has as its only roadblock some mild ribbing for his bleach-blonde 'do; and all the serrated edges are sanded off along with the smaller moments of triumph that define the immigrant experience as much as the now-familiar indignities. Riceboy Sleeps is a pity party spiced with a little faux profundity. It looks nice, and Choi, a trained dancer making her feature debut, is always interesting to watch, but it's merely a tearjerker in all the positive and pejorative implications of the term.