Immigrant tale ‘Riceboy Sleeps’ charms in native South Korea

A Korean-Canadian filmmaker’s poignant coming-of-age story has charmed audiences at Asia’s top film festival, with the director telling AFP he made the movie to help people like him feel “a little bit less alone”.

“Riceboy Sleeps” won a prestigious prize at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, but Anthony Shim’s movie about growing up as a Korean immigrant in majority-white Vancouver has also proved a hit in his native South Korea.

It won the Flash Forward Audience Award at the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival and is set to screen nationwide in South Korea.

The film follows hot on the heels of critically acclaimed film “Minari” and TV series “Pachinko”, which also tackle stories of the Korean diaspora, but Shim offers a unique portrait of a life caught between two worlds.

Inspired by his own experiences, the film, set in the 1990s, follows a South Korean single mother who moves to Canada with her young son, and the difficulties they encounter.

“There are stories being told now about the Asian immigrant story, the Korean immigrant story, I just felt like there wasn’t anything that I was seeing that represented my experiences,” Shim told AFP.

“I wanted to see it, so I just made one.”

Gimbap mocked

The mother in the story faces sexist and racist treatment at work, while her son, Dong-hyun, is brutally mocked for his lunch of gimbap — Korean rice rolls — which he ends up secretly throwing away to avoid torment.

His school encourages him to change his Korean name to an English one, and fails to protect him from bullying and slurs — then punishes him when he fights back.

Shot on 16mm film, “Riceboy Sleeps” captures the turbulent evolution of the mother-son relationship as Dong-hyun becomes a bleach-blond teenager, and touches on death and loss.

Shim himself moved to Vancouver at the age of eight with his family and has described growing up as often the only Asian child in his class at school.

During their first years in Canada, the family was “deprived of anything Korean” at a time before the explosive success of K-Pop and K-drama made Korean content more widely accessible.

Shim used to rent and binge-watch early K-dramas and films on cassettes from Korean grocery stores in Vancouver, which is how he discovered seminal South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 film “Peppermint Candy”.

Lee’s film — about a tormented man whose life is shaped by South Korea’s tumultuous modern history — made Shim think about “the darker realities of life and existence and death”, he told AFP.

“That film has shaped who I am as a storyteller and as a person so dramatically. I go back to that constantly, I go back to that film,” he said, adding it eventually inspired “Riceboy Sleeps”.

Racist ‘trauma’

Busan film festival officials hailed the “honest and thoughtful” film, which also stirred up a lot of emotions.

“This film manages to pull it all off,” festival programmer Park Do-sin said.

Shim said the film involved “some of the most vulnerable and painful things in my life” including his childhood experiences of racism, which continue to haunt him.

“The trauma of having dealt with… that kind of insult as a kid is still affecting me now,” he told AFP.

“That’s why I touched on the racial elements, because they shaped who I became.”

Shim’s film arrives as interest in and demand for Korean stories soars globally, thanks in part to the success of the Oscar-winning film “Parasite” and the hit Netflix series “Squid Game”.

But the director said his main goal was for his film to give hope to anyone feeling “broken and lonely”.

“If there’s anyone out in the world that can see that piece of work and go, I feel a little bit less alone… Then I’ll take a thousand criticisms of that work in exchange for that one person who might feel a little better.”

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