Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps is one of the most beautiful films of the year and is sure to have you sobbing from the opening minutes.
There’s a single scene in Riceboy Sleeps, roughly about halfway through, which encapsulates everything both good and bad about the film as a whole. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, written to perfection and performed even better, but more importantly than anything else, it got a genuine tear out of me. I very rarely cry at movies, it generally takes a very certain kind of story to pierce my typically stone-cold heart, but Riceboy Sleeps did it. For almost a solid half an hour following that particular scene, I don’t think tears stopped streaming down my face. For a film to get that much of an emotional reaction out of me, it had to have done a lot right, and this indie slice-of-life gets so, so much right.
Riceboy Sleeps, the second feature film directed by actor Anthony Shim, is based partly on Shim’s childhood. It follows So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon), a Korean immigrant who moves to Canada with the intention of giving her son Dong-Hyun (Ethan Hwang) a better life. It’s a simple story on paper, but in practice, it winds up being incredibly ambitious. I get the feeling that Shim might have wanted to make an even longer coming-of-age epic, as not only do we see multiple stages of Dong-Hyun’s life, but the story constantly shifts from theme to theme, with little regard for the plotlines it leaves behind. It’s an incredibly scattered way of telling a story, and results in the film never really landing on a specific point it wants to make or a theme it wants to tackle.
The lack of focus in its narrative is definitely the film’s biggest shortcoming, but what it results in is this almost overwhelming blast of pure emotion, all focusing on two brilliantly developed characters. Both So-Young and Dong-Hyun feel real from start to finish, and their obvious humanity makes it so easy for any audience member to connect with them. This is massively helped by the talent on display throughout the entire film, namely Seung-yoon who delivers a masterclass of a performance, beautifully portraying So-Young as a fighter who will do absolutely anything for her son. The film’s emotional weight rests almost entirely on her shoulders, and she smashes it out of the park in every single scene she features in, reducing me to tears time after time.
Not only are the performances beautiful, but the film as a whole is gorgeous. Visually, the cinematography is stunning, with camerawork I can only describe as gentle and dreamlike. The way the film chooses to contrast incredibly hard-hitting, frustrating moments with some of the softest, prettiest cinematography I’ve seen in recent memory is incredibly fascinating and is yet another factor in exactly why this film got such an emotional reaction out of me. Technically, this is an absolute treat. Shim places so much trust in his actors, choosing to film almost all of the scenes as unbroken long takes. It’s a risky choice that ends up working brilliantly, as it allows for some incredibly powerful moments to take place.
One long take that I absolutely adored is a particularly emotional confession scene, where instead of cutting to the person being confessed to, Shim allows the camera to linger on the confessor, letting us see just how hard of a moment this is for them. Once the camera does move, and we do see the other person’s reaction, it’s even more of a gut punch thanks to the wait we were forced to endure. The constant long takes are a move that only works if the actors in question are on their absolute A-game, and lucky for Shim, every single actor here is fantastic throughout the entire runtime.
Once I finished Riceboy Sleeps, the number one thing that I wanted to do was ring up my Mum and just cry on the phone to her, reminding her of just how much I love and appreciate her. It may be trying to juggle a few too many themes and subplots, but it’s incredibly rare that a film does to me what this one did. In a lot of ways, it feels like a phenomenal proof of concept for something even longer and even better, and I would love to see the finished product down the line. As it is now though, Riceboy Sleeps is still one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of the year, combining beautiful performances, gorgeous cinematography, confident direction and a script that isn’t shy from tackling hard-hitting, emotional themes head-on. It’s fantastic from start to finish, and it’ll also have you sobbing from start to finish.
Riceboy Sleeps will be available on digital platforms in the US from May 2, 2023. Pre-order Riceboy Sleeps today!