There are some unavoidable keystone clichés in every Asian-American film. Does it feature borderline to outright toxic parental dynamics? Check. Is the lead feeling “caught between two worlds”? Check. Is there badly repressed intergenerational trauma? Check. The fact that this model for the quintessential Asian immigrant narrative has become its own tired trope doesn’t undermine the inherent importance of those classic Joy Luck Club-esque stories. But trust me, no one is more self-aware (and just slightly bored) of the dominant Asian-American narratives than actual Asian-Americans. Thankfully, in recent years, we’ve seen some stellar examples of Asian diasporic films which have found new ways to innovate and expand upon these tired formulas. Notably, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere all At Once (naturally), and most recently, Vancouver-based writer-director Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps, which was a hit at last year’s TIFF festival and has now been officially released in cinemas across Canada.
Set in the 1990s, Riceboy Sleeps follows the story of single mother So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon) and her young son Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang, Ethan Hwang) as they immigrate from their native South Korea to Canada in pursuit of a better life. At face value, Riceboy Sleeps seems to touch on many of the issues that feel all too familiar to those in the diaspora, yet Shim still manages to execute one of the most moving and cathartic meditations on diasporic identities that I have seen in a very long time.
Riceboy Sleeps has the feel and aesthetic of a lived-in memory; So-young and Dong-hyun’s apartment in Vancouver is small, brown, and poorly lit. The confinement of its many walls and narrow hallways are enhanced by a 4:3 aspect ratio. There is something ghost-like about the film’s unique cinematic style; edits are minimal, allowing the camera to linger on scenes in long, generous takes. Alongside the phenomenal acting of the movie’s leads, Riceboy Sleeps’s unique cinematography is key to giving the film its naturalistic, documentary-like feel. Christopher Lew’s impressive camerawork languidly glides about set pieces, like a pair of eyes timidly observing the everyday adventures of small Dong-hyun and his mother. Does this represent the presence of an ancestral spirit – perhaps that of Dong-hyun’s deceased father – watching over its loved ones? Are these the discerning eyes of an adult Dong-hyun, recalling and recreating a past that only now exists within the faded pages of a photo album?
Most touching and complex of all is the actual mother-son bond between So-Young and Dong-Hyun. I’ve often felt that many Asian diasporic narratives have the tendency to paint immigrant parents in overly reductive roles; they are grade-obsessed, emotionally constipated, conservative, abusive, tyrants – so the stereotypes say. Conveniently, they often serve as the perfect antagonistic force to contrast against the Westernized lead character’s individualism. Shim rejects such cheap characterizations. So-young’s struggle as a single mother working in a factory is directly paralleled with Dong-Hyun’s difficulty fitting in among his peers at school; both face the casual racism and alienation of their respective predominantly white environments. While So-young eventually finds community and support amidst a group of other racialized female co-workers, Dong-Hyun continues to struggle to reconcile his Canadian lifestyle with his Korean roots as he grows into teenagehood. His efforts to assimilate – bleaching his hair blonde, wearing coloured contact lenses – prove futile and hollow.
Riceboy Sleeps’s breathtaking final sequence begins as So-Young and Dong-Hyun vacation back to South Korea. Andrew Yong Hoon Lee’s original instrumental soundtrack swells with gravitas as the film culminates to its emotional climax; mother and son are finally able to come away with a renewed sense of what “home” means for both of them. Nothing is perfect, but perhaps simply being there together is enough.