‘Riceboy Sleeps’ Review: Motherhood and Boyhood in a New Home

This intimate drama gives a moving, if imperfect, look at a Korean immigrant mother’s struggle to raise her son in 1990s Canada.

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By Brandon Yu

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A few minutes into “Riceboy Sleeps,” an imperfect but ultimately moving drama written and directed by Anthony Shim, the film falls into that dreaded trope of immigrant stories: the smelly lunchbox moment. The experience comes for young Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) when he opens the Korean meal his mom packed him and is taunted by elementary school classmates.

Later, he asks his single mother, So-young (Choi Seung-yoon), who emigrated from Korea to Canada with Dong-hyun after the father died by suicide, to pack him a less conspicuous lunch. It’s one of a few ways that Shim’s film, which eventually flashes forward to track So-young’s struggle to raise and connect with her son during his teenage years (when he is played by Ethan Hwang), emphasizes in an almost perfunctory way the racism and hardship the pair faces in a new country in the ‘90s.

Even while it’s hampered by these rough edges, the movie is terrifically scored and beautifully shot. (Though the cinematographer Christopher Lew’s astute camerawork is too often left to do heavy emotional lifting that the writing can’t.) Most of all, the film is elevated by Choi, who naturally communicates the strength, tenderness and pain of So-young’s life.

It’s not until the spectacular third act of the film, when mother and son travel to Korea, that everything clicks more fully into place, as Shim lets the landscape and his actors take over. The camera finally sits still, capturing small moments of connection that further contour unspeakable wounds — giving a window into a past life that So-young could never fully escape.

Riceboy Sleeps
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. Rent or buy on most major platforms.

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