Uprooted and Displaced

in Tromsø International Film Festival

by Peter Stuart Robinson

Peter Stuart Robinson reappraises the choice for the critics’ prize as a work that excels in cinematic craft while also being deeply affecting. This is not least for the way it taps into our common humanity, sympathy, and deep-rooted emotions in an era where it is needed more than ever. 

Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps (2022), winner of our Fipresci Prize at Tromsø International Film Festival, is an uncommon film. Taken individually its virtues might seem unremarkable, but taken together they add up to something quite extraordinary. First, there’s the choice of subject-matter: a single Korean mum trying to make her way in the big new, often unforgiving country of Canada. However familiar the template, such stories will always need telling, stories of the uprooted and displaced, and the casual xenophobia they meet along the way, from callous indifference to outright assault.

Who are the perpetrators? The complacent ones, those lucky enough to feel a little more comfortable in their environment, a little more firmly rooted. We need an occasional reminder that we are all transients, fleeting, vulnerable souls, brought here (to planet Earth) against our will, struggling to find ourselves, and a sense of belonging.   

Of course, there are many such worthy stories on the festival circuit. It is the manner of the telling that makes Riceboy Sleeps stand out, with its acute eye for detail and a refreshing disdain for sentimentality. The result is the sense of something wholly real, not least in its emotional register.

Early in their ‘Canadian adventure’ the young boy positively launches himself across a sprawling garden. He runs full pelt until, in an instant, we see the fence blocking his path. Without a beat he scrabbles on and upwards, the epitome of the desperate fugitive – but his mother is too fast for him. She plucks him down like fresh, ripe fruit, and takes him firmly in hand. His flight is over. Cut to school… 

It sounds simple! But it is anything but. Anyone can shoot action. The trick is for the action to hold the spectator in its hand – that delicate, most unstable suspension in the amber of pure movement. Only the best filmmakers can pull this off, that is, pull the strings of their visual narrative so expertly: grab our attention, fill up our senses with cinematic fuel, and take us along for the ride.

The secret lies in the finely tuned cadence of the storytelling, by which events unfold in judicious bite-size morsels. The filmmaker holds back as needed to preserve the suspense. Hence the run is a sort of breathtaking question: Why? The scene that immediately follows provides the answer: playful, half-ironic, through the understated, short yet gentle shock of recognition. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Is there anyone who hasn’t dreaded that first day at school? Or worse, witnessed the dread and heart-rending vulnerability of a beloved son or daughter?

That such a generic experience should be evoked so convincingly is testimony to the power of the filmmaker’s craft. That old chestnut the first day at school! How readily it devolves into a tawdry cliché! It takes a remarkable synergy of elements, from dynamic camera-work to the astonishing performance of the child actor, to make this fresh again, to reacquaint us with the hard, unbending bedrock of reality, a reality if you’ll pardon the expression that actually bites. Paradoxically, the film achieves its power through the power of understatement, not by banging us over the head with a faux reality, but rather by offering a delicate archaeology of experience, tapping into the elusive wellsprings of a burgeoning verisimilitude.

Starting school is a tough ride for anyone. It’s even tougher if you’re different, and the first day is only the beginning. Of course, we’re all different, but the more different you are, the tougher it gets, and should you have the temerity to fight back, as mother and son both attempt to do in their different ways, retribution will be all the more harder. Here lies the subtle charm of the film, the mother and son in parallel, together yet apart in their struggles. The mother, isolated and yet harassed at work, the boy ridiculed and bullied at school. They echo one another unwittingly, their experiences left largely without comment. And yet a half-submerged solidarity is visible below, the strange, bitter-sweet harmony of displaced, alienated souls. 

The power of the film is enhanced immeasurably by some terrific acting, not least by Dohyun Noel Hwang and Ethan Hwang as the younger and older incarnations of Dong-hyun, and the director himself as the painfully reserved suitor of So-young, the boy’s mother. A particular plaudit must be reserved for Choi Seung-yoon’s portrayal of So-young through all her trials and tribulations. It is the standout performance of a consistently well-acted story. 

Riceboy Sleeps is a deeply affecting work. There was plenty of tears at the festival screening – a sentiment that is not always the hallmark of quality, it should be acknowledged. These were the tears of fellow-human feelings, however, and not the crocodile tears of faux sentimentality. The film reaps the reward – and, yes, this can smart or jar a little – of cinematic craft at its best. It taps into our common humanity and brings us all that little bit closer together. In the abusive, bellicose times in which we live, this is a significant and eminently timely achievement.

Peter Stuart Robinson
Edited by Steven Yates